In 1947, State Department analyst George F. Kennan penned a highly influential essay on the Soviet Union that transformed fear of the USSR into a cohesive foreign policy. Arguing that insecure Russians had always had the desire to expand and acquire territory, Kennan wrote that the Soviet Union would take every opportunity to spread Communism into every possible “nook and cranny” around the globe, either by conquering neighboring countries or by subtly supporting Communist revolutionaries in politically unstable countries. Kennan also wrote, however, that the United States could prevent the global domination of Communism with a strategy of “containment.” He suggested maintaining the status quo by thwarting Communist aggression abroad.
Kennan’s containment doctrine rapidly became the root of the dominant U.S. strategy for fighting Communism throughout the Cold War. Different presidents interpreted the doctrine differently and/or employed different tactics to accomplish their goals, but the overall strategy for keeping Communism in check remained the same until the Cold War ended in the early 1990s.
Truman quickly latched onto the doctrine of containment and modified it with his own Truman Doctrine. In a special address to Congress in March 1947, Truman announced that the United States would support foreign governments resisting “armed minorities” or “outside pressures”—that is, Communist revolutionaries or the Soviet Union. He then convinced Congress to appropriate $400 million to prevent the fall of Greece and Turkey to Communist insurgents.
Critics, both at the time and looking back in retrospect, have charged that Truman’s adoption of the containment doctrine, coupled with his own Truman Doctrine, accelerated the Cold War by polarizing the United States and the USSR unnecessarily. Many have claimed that the United States might have avoided fifty years of competition and mutual distrust had Truman sought a diplomatic solution instead.
Defendants of Truman’s policy, however, have claimed that the Soviet Union had already begun the Cold War by thwarting Allied attempts to reunite and stabilize Germany. Truman, they have argued, merely met the existing Soviet challenge. Other supporters believed that Truman used polarizing language in order to prevent U.S. isolationists from abandoning the cause in Europe. Whatever his motivations, Truman’s adoption of the containment doctrine and his characterization of the Communist threat shaped American foreign policy for the subsequent four decades.
The possibility of a war with the Soviet Union prompted Congress, Truman, and the military leadership to drastically reorganize the intelligence-gathering services and armed forces. In 1947, Congress passed the landmark National Security Act, which placed the military under the new cabinet-level secretary of defense. Civilians would be chosen to serve in the post of secretary of defense and as the secretaries of the individual military branches, while the highest-ranking officers in the armed forces would form the new Joint Chiefs of Staff to coordinate military efforts. The National Security Act also created the civilian position of national security advisor to advise the president and direct the new National Security Council. The new Central Intelligence Agency became the primary espionage and intelligence-gathering service.