The Cold War: Containment and Confrontation

The Soviet Union appeared to most Americans as an enigmatic and threatening presence on the world scene. Stalin’s insistence on maintaining a Soviet sphere of influence would dictate American foreign policy for the next 40 years. One approach to Soviet expansionism was drawn from the general history of empires. In the past, aggressive empires were contained by diplomatic and political sanctions. The most logical response was to constrain its expansionist tendencies through a policy of containment.

The principal architect of containment was George F. Keenan (1904-2005). Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Keenan made his way to the United States Foreign Service, with early appointments to Germany and the Baltic countries. He became a leading expert on Russian affairs during the 1930s and was a key member of the United States Embassy in Moscow at that time. After World War II, Keenan served as deputy head of the United States mission in Moscow, and at the end of his term in 1946 sent his now-famous “long telegram,” perhaps the best-known cable in American diplomatic history, to James Byrnes, President Harry S. Truman’s Secretary of State. Keenan argued that Stalin used Communist ideology to legitimize his own autocratic leadership and protect his own self-interests. Keenan’s strategy was to contain Soviet power by a system of alliances and foreign aid. He belittled the idea that Stalin was determined to destroy the United States and argued that, when pressured, he [Stalin] would back down. Keenan’s ideas became the basis of both the Truman Doctrine (1947) and the Marshall Plan (1947).

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The posturing of both the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War was dangerous. There were several occasions when the leaders of each nation had backed the other into a corner with few options for retreat. The U-2 Spy Plane Crisis of 1960 anticipated the Cuban Missile Crisis and granted important context to the larger crisis.

Click on the following link to view a video of President Kennedy’s speech on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Click on the play button once the website opens.


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