Soviet Long Game and Policy of Containment

Cold War Q’s: The Soviet Long Game and the Policy of Containment


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The origins of the Cold War were in the uneasy alliance between the US and the Soviet Union during WW2. The aim of both nations was to destroy Germany, which alone stood in all of Europe to confront the wave of Marxist-Communism washing over the continent. Spain’s Civil War was a prelude to WW2, and there Franco was victorious. Germany and Italy were under pressure from the Communists, and both Hitler and Mussolini used Fascism to strike back. Hitler united Germany in the style of Bismarck before him, which neither France nor England viewed favorably. The Soviet Union’s ambitions for westward imperialism were also threatened by German rehabilitation and expansion since the crushing defeat under the Versailles Treaty. The US entered WW2 on the Western Front while the Soviets, the Germans and the half-million non-German volunteers of the Waffen SS battled it out on the Eastern Front for the future of Europe (Degrelle). The spoils of war were claimed at Potsdam, but from there on the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union deteriorated steadily. It had never been rooted in anything other than the need to rout Germany. Once that objective had been achieved, a need for alliance was no longer. Who would control Europe was the question that remained and the two powers vying for control were the US and the Soviet Union—and the divide was Berlin.

The US also made a bold show of power by dropping two atomic bombs on Japan at the end of the war—a demonstration of force meant to show dominance to the Soviets (Stone, Kuznick). The Soviets, naturally, did not take the message well and felt compelled to take part in an arms race that further stoked the flames of Cold War. The Marshall Plan, the US’s economic aid program to Europe, further stoked the flames, and the Soviet attempt to blockade West Berlin was the response to what the Soviets saw as Western meddling in the Soviet’s hard-won territory. The US responded with the Berlin Airlift, which led to the Soviets erecting the Berlin Wall as a direct message to the US to stay out of its affairs. Kennedy’s bombastic speech at the Berlin Wall in 1963 and the Cuban Missile Crisis prior to that all contributed to the Cold War bursting onto the scene like a fully-formed Athena out of the head of Zeus.

Was it inevitable that it should come about? Considering the aims and methods of the two nations, yes—for both went about foreign policy in much the same manner, using money, bribes, arms deals, political influence, soft power, proxy armies and the like to spread their influence. The world was up for grabs at mid-century and the two superpowers were on a collision course now that the global world order had been upset by the destruction caused during WW2. The ideologies of the US and the Soviet Union were dissimilar only superficially: the Soviet Union was Communist; the US proclaimed democracy. Yet they had been allies against the Axis for geopolitical gain. The US had its own Communist sympathizers and FDR had ushered in American socialism prior to the war. The US today resembles more and more every year the character of the Soviet Union at its zenith under Stalin. What caused the clash of these two nations and the rise of the Cold War was simply the fact that both were engaged in what they saw as a zero sum game of geopolitical dominance. In this zero sum game, there could be only one winner, and when the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the 1980s, the US appeared victorious—and yet Russia re-emerged like Germany under Hitler in the 1930s, with its own leader in Putin; and so the game continues.


The post-revisionist interpretation best explains the intensification of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union in the period from 1945 to 1953. The US bombing of Japan in 1945 was provocative to say the least: Japan no longer represented a threat—it was a show of force on the world stage intended to send a message to the Soviets that the US was the dominant superpower. Yet the Soviets were not without their own grand ambitions.

The declaration on the formation of the USSR, December 30, 1922, incorporated as preamble of first Soviet constitution, 1924, sent a clear enough message to the rest of the world what the Soviets sought to achieve. The rhetoric was rough: “There, in the camp of capitalism: national hate and inequality, colonial slavery and chauvinism, national oppression and massacres, brutalities and imperialistic wars. Here, in the camp of socialism: reciprocal confidence and peace, national liberty and equality, the pacific co-existence and fraternal collaboration of peoples” (Constitution of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics). This type of announcement certainly did not sit well with the US—yet the US still allied itself with the Soviets to counter Germany. The Atlantic Charter of 1941 made it seem that the US had no grand territorial ambitions—but of course that was not true: it was a political ruse meant to pacify Stalin. The division of Europe as dictated by Churchill and Stalin in 1944 on a napkin showed to a limited extent what the West had in mind—and it certainly flew in the face of the pronouncement made just three years earlier by Churchill with FDR in the Atlantic Charter.

But it was at Yalta that it all quickly came apart. FDR did better at winning Stalin’s trust than Churchill, but FDR would soon be dead and Truman’s bomb-dropping on Japan would send a new message that the Soviet Union had not been anticipating. The trifling of the West in Berlin with the Berlin Airlift from 1948-1949 would further show that the West was not disposed to sit back on its heels and allow the Soviet Union to dictate policy across the whole of Europe. Yet, the Marshall Plan had already shown as much to the Soviets, and the Soviet Council for Mutual Economic Assistance in 1949 was its own response to the US infusion of cash for influence in the new world order. The Soviets were also extending their influence in Asia, which the US did not like, and all of this contributed to the growing of Cold War tensions.

Radio Free Europe (1949) and Radio Liberty (1953) were attempts of soft power by the US to further undermine Soviet influence on the continent. The formation of NATO in 1949 was the same. The Korean War (1950-1953) saw the Soviets supporting North Korea and the US supporting South Korea, further alienating the two nations from one another and setting the stage for a global Cold War conflict.

It is impossible to say that one side or the other was to blame for the Cold War. It is like saying Germany was solely to blame for WW1. It is far too simplistic to assign blame in such a one-sided manner. Both the US and the Soviet Union were involved in intrigues that prevented trust from being established or diplomacy from being enacted. The heavy-handedness on both sides was apparent from the beginning—in the Soviet Union’s very character at its inception to the US’s demonstration of a brutal willingness to use force against its opponents, even if that force was not justified by any rational factor. The seeds of the Cold War were sewn by the disposition of both nations, their attitudes, aims, and methods in seeking geopolitical hegemony in a world ripped apart at the end of 1945. That is why the post-revisionist interpretation makes the most sense.


Kennan in his Long Telegram stated that as far as Moscow was concerned the “USSR still lives in antagonistic ‘capitalist encirclement’ with which in the long run there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence.” NSC-68 was the report that the Soviets had likely acquired the nuclear bomb by 1949. Kennan tried to describe why the Soviets were willing to sit back and wait for the capitalist West to break down under the machinery of its own making. His article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” was published in 1947, and the biographer John Lewis Gaddis had won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of George Kennan, the notoriously private diplomat who gave Gaddis access to a number of primary documents never made public before. Kennan believed strongly that the Soviet system was patient and willing to play a long game in geopolitical affairs so as to bring about its grand vision of worldwide revolution. This information was embraced by the Truman Administration in its promotion of the policy of containment. The Report by the Secretaries of State and Defense (NSC-68) was essentially written to justify containment. Dean Acheson was primarily behind NSC-68 and his perspective was different from Kennan’s in that instead of approaching the topic of the Soviet system from the standpoint of understanding it approached the topic from the standpoint of action—as in the US must act to undermine the Soviet long-game: he wanted a reversal of the policy of accommodation and wanted to further the Truman Administration’s policy of containment, which served as justification for the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War.

Kennan’s Long Telegram is basically a prelude to NSC-68 even if unintentionally. If NSC-68 talks about the need to roll back Soviet influence, Kennan’s telegram states that the Soviet aim is to pit capitalist countries against one another—a divide and conquer strategy: “Everything possible will be done to set major Western Powers against each other. Anti-British talk will be plugged among Americans, anti-American talk among British. Continentals, including Germans, will be taught to abhor both Anglo-Saxon powers. Where suspicions exist, they will be fanned; where not, ignited.” To combat this divide-and-conquer strategy, however, Kennan recommended patience and calmness: he recommended education of the public about the strategies of the Soviet Union and viewed the Soviet system as much weaker than that of the capitalistic West. He viewed Soviet propaganda as relatively easy to dismantle through a concerted and constructive effort on the part of the West. He did not advocate war, as he thought that would be more destructive.

However, the recommendations of NSC-68 took the insight of Kennan’s telegram to heart and dismissed the recommendations. Instead of patience and calmness, NSC-68 recommends action, laying the foundation for rearmament and containment. Kennan essentially described the Soviet ambition and hoped for a peaceful way forward; Acheson et al. embraced Kennan’s description of that ambition but upped the ante by arguing that the Soviets were not simply going to wait around for the West to collapse but rather had achieved nuclear armament, which meant the West better get going on shoring up leaders around that world in pivotal places (like Korea and Vietnam) so as to combat the influence and power of the Soviet Union. NSC-68 wanted action, including military action, whereas the Long Telegram recommended a calmer approach to countering the Soviet long-game, namely by using propaganda to fight propaganda. NSC-68 was not a logical extension of the strategy contained within the Long Telegram but rather a feverish escalation of it.


Atlantic Charter. 1941.

Constitution of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. 1924.

Degrelle, Leon. Hitler: Born at Versailles. Institute for Historical Review, 1987.

The Division of Europe. 1944.

Kennan, George. “Long Telegram.” 1946.

Stone, Oliver and Peter Kuznick. The Untold History of the United States. NY: Gallery,2012.

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