Containing the Cold War

How the American policy of Containment influenced everything from foreign aid to family life.

by Emily Tayler

The end of the Second World War brought forth a new set of challenges once the wartime alliance of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union collapsed. The period between 1945 and 1991 came to be known as the Cold War and was primarily fought by the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. The resulting American foreign policy during the Cold War revolved around the overarching pillar of containment. This policy, which was outlined in George Kennan’s 1946 “Long Telegram”, centered on the idea that communism was only allowed to exist where it was currently present but could not spread. Containment addressed the fragile balance of power between the two ideologies of liberal capitalism and communism in the global order. By following this idea, the American administration believed that they could effectively limit the spread of the Soviet Union’s communist ideology and the country’s sphere of influence. Kennan, who was the American minister in Moscow at the time, suggested that the United States had to strengthen the American capitalist system internally in order to stop emerging countries from turning to communism.

Many of the new countries that emerged after the Second World War were able to draw new boundaries in Europe and elsewhere, which pushed the decolonization movement to the forefront of world politics. New states came to represent more than half of the population through their membership in the United Nations, therefore allowing them to put pressure on the larger states. These new countries became the tipping point in a finely balanced divide between ideologies. To convince these newly emerged countries of the woes of communism, the capitalist states had to create a viable alternative option. The decolonized countries were already skeptical of capitalist tendencies towards imperialism. Kennan noted that the only way to ensure the survival of the American way of life would be to strengthen it internally. The result was that the domestic policy of the United States came to mimic the pillar of containment due to the repressive nature of the American foreign policy during the early Cold War period. Therefore, the policy of containment effectively became a culture of containment. 

Literary scholar Alan Nadel articulated this containment culture in his book of the same name. In the preface, he reconciled the country’s “cult of domesticity and fetishizing of domestic security” with his childhood in Cold War America: 

“Setting up a mythic nuclear family as the universal container of democratic values, the cultural narratives of my childhood made personal behavior part of a global strategy at the same time as they personalized the international struggle with communism.” (xi) 

Nadel goes on to compare American foreign policy to the repression of postmodernist tropes in literature. This model style of living became extremely constraining for minority groups, women, and creative people, which were represented in their works of literature, such as the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedman. These works demonstrate how the trauma of a nation can affect personal narratives. Each work, published in the 1950s and 1960s, dealt with the issue of their repression within their minority group. Anything outside the norm was considered alien or subversive. Instead of focusing on becoming a global leader that presented a viable option to decolonized countries, the American policy became primarily about creating the optimal nuclear family and perfect suburban household. 

Likewise, the nuclear monopoly in the United States allowed the country to shape the narrative of the world, especially within the western powers. This highlights the importance of conformity as a form of public knowledge. The 1950s American narrative became one of the ‘same’ and the ‘other’ – this language was used in everything from policy to television broadcasts, which created a good and evil dichotomy. Policies such as the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, created in 1947 and 1948 respectively, offered economic and military assistance to any country seeking aid after the devastation of the World Wars. These documents appeared to be generous in nature but they created a greater divide in the spheres of influence. Although these policies were intended to rebuild Europe after the devastation of the Second World War, they became a way for the United States to intrusively create nations in their liberal capitalist image. After the bombing of Japan, the United States provided funds to the country to try and create a capitalist ally in the East. It also allowed the United States to paint the Soviet Union in a negative light and dichotomize the it further, as the Soviet satellite states were unable to accept any funds. Likewise, both the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan were passed through Congress using the language of democracy, as Truman aligned democracy and free people with a capitalist way of life. It became the American duty to protect the people of the world against communism. This rhetoric was subsequently reinstated to a population that had become unsettled after the devastation of the Second World War.

This climate of fear also brought the Red Scare to the forefront of the American consciousness. The Red Scare, which was the public fear of communism created by the dramatic language of ‘free people,’ was used to characterize the American fight against the ideology. This was especially prevalent during the American Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, which occurred while the Cold War was at its height. The American government was particularly fearful of these protests because they implied that young people were becoming disillusioned with the current political order, both globally and domestically. The Red Scare also informed domestic policy, as any social-based policy was labelled as a communist threat and not passed. This paranoia is a major reason why a universal healthcare bill has not been passed in the United States. Despite President Truman campaigning for comprehensive universal healthcare insurance in at the beginning of his presidency in 1945, he was met with a disapproving Republican Congress. The proposal was deemed socialist and received incredible backlash. Subsequent American presidents and officials have attempted to instate a universal healthcare insurance for decades but the paranoia brought forth by the fear of communist societies has prevented them from providing this beneficial policy for citizens. The struggle to implement social-based policies is still prevalent in current American domestic policy debates.

The foreign and domestic policies of Cold War America were directly dependent on one another. This connection creates a direct parallel between the Cold War and modern day America. The sporadic, and sometimes irrational, nature of today’s foreign policy directly mirrors the underlying tensions of domestic affairs. Although current media discourse creates less of a dichotomy between America and its enemies, such as North Korea or Iran, it also deepens the divide between the pendulous political spectrums of the American population. These tensions are not bringing America together in order to unite it against a common enemy that threatens the American way of life. Instead, it is heightening individuals’ radical views and giving them an enemy to fight within their own population.

Emily Tayler is a second year International Relations and English Literature student at the University of Western Ontario. She has been a columnist for The General Assembly since 2017. Her areas of historical and political focus include the Cold War, civil rights movements, gender politics and Soviet Russia.

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