Two Hundred Years of 'Containment' -- Imperial History Revisited

06/08/2015 09:36 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

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It might have been the most influential single sentence of that era: "In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies." And it originated in an 8,000 word telegram -- yes, in those days, unbelievably enough, there was no email, no Internet, no Snapchat, no Facebook -- sent back to Washington in February 1946 by George F. Kennan, the U.S. chargé d'affaires in Moscow, at a moment when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was just gaining traction.

The next year, a reworked version of Kennan's "Long Telegram" with that sentence would be published as "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" in the prestigious magazine Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym "Mr. X" (though it was common knowledge in Washington who had written it). From that moment on, "containment" of what, until the Sino-Soviet split, was called the Soviet bloc, would be Washington's signature foreign and military policy of the era. The idea was to ring the Soviet Union and China with bases and then militarily, economically, and diplomatically hem in a gaggle of communist states from Hungary and Czechoslovakia in Eastern Europe to North Korea on the Pacific and from Siberia south to the Central Asian SSRs of the Soviet Union. In other words, much of the Eurasian land mass.

And then, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed and disappeared from the face of the Earth in 1991, that was that. Along with the former Communist world, containment as policy was dispatched to the dustbin of history -- or was it? Strangely enough, as historian Alfred McCoy points out today in "The Geopolitics of American Global Decline," if you look at Washington's military bases (which, if anything, were expanded in the post-Soviet era), its conflicts, and the focus of its foreign policy, American attempts to "contain" the heartlands of Eurasia, especially Russia and China, have never ended. Given the passage of almost a quarter of a century since the Cold War era, the map of those garrisons and the conflicts that go with them still looks eerily familiar.

And here's an even stranger thing, as McCoy again makes clear: the U.S. was not the first imperial power to put its energy into "containing" Eurasia. In 1945, when World War II ended with Great Britain and its empire hollowed out and in a state of exhaustion, the U.S. inherited a no-name version of "containment" policy from the British before Kennan even thought to use the term. It's odd to realize that "containment" as imperial policy has a history that is now, in a sense, more than two centuries old. It's strange enough, in fact, that McCoy turns his attention to the subject to help make sense of the edgy U.S.-China relationship for the rest of this century.