This paper outlines the manner in which the U.S foreign policy of containment was used during the Cold War. Various issues that emerged during the war are highlighted, including the Berlin Crisis, the Korean and Vietnam War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and democratic elections in Poland. An analogy is then drawn between this policy of containment and President Bush’s policy of pre-emption. The most significant events that shaped the pre-emption doctrine are highlighted. The most notable of these events include the 9-11 attacks, the attack on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the fight against terror. The perceptions and mistakes that the U.S is making today seem to be largely historical in nature. Careful historical considerations would have led to the avoidance of the mistake of invading Iraq and Afghanistan.  


During the cold war, the American foreign policy was shaped by various events that took place in different countries of the world. Some of the most notable Cold War events include the Korean and Vietnam War, the Berlin Crisis, and the issue of atomic weapons.  On the other hand, the country’s participation in Middle East was mainly aimed at containing Islamic fundamentalism in the region. An analogy can be drawn between the U.S foreign policy in the course of the Cold War and in the Middle East in trying to prevent the spread of fundamentalism.

Critical events during the Cold War

Certain events that took place during the cold war are worth considering in order for the analogy to become clear. The Yalta conference is one of these events. This conference was held towards the end of the World War II. In this conference, which was held in the resort town of Yalta, in 1945, significant decisions that touched on the fate of post-war Europe were reached. The U.S, Great Britain and the Soviet Union met to discuss dividing up Germany, forming the United Nations, the future of Poland, German war reparations, among other issues. On the issue of dividing up Germany, the U.S was of the opinion that the country should be divided into 5 constituent parts.

During the Yalta Conference, the U.S, Secretary of State made a proposal for a “Declaration of Liberated Europe”. Within this proposal, conditions of internal peace would be established. The internal government authorities set up would be representative of all the existing democratic elements in every European country. Where necessary, facilitation of elections would be provided.

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The Yalta Conference set the precedent for an emerging power tussle between the U.S and the Soviet Union. During the Yalta Conference, one of the stickiest issues was determining the future of Poland. George Kennan introduced a strategy known as ‘containment’, a strategy that was aimed at preventing the Soviet influence from expanding and maintaining the status quo.

Kennan believed that eventually, the Soviet Union would relinquish its extremely harsh grip on her citizenry through a change of foreign policies if the West maintained consistent opposition. The Truman Doctrine contained the pledge that Americans would support ‘free peoples who are trying to resist attempted subjugation by outside pressures or armed minorities’. This announcement was accompanied by a request by President Truman for $400,000,000 in order to help Greece fight communism. The president also explained his intention to send U.S troops to countries where economic stability was being threatened by communism.

The U.S policy of containment also manifests itself during the Korean and Vietnam War. The Korean War seemed to inaugurate actual measures being taken to contain communism by the U.S. The idea behind containment was that communism must not be allowed to spread beyond a given geographical point. This was fought for political rather than military objectives, and was therefore used for gaining political advantage at the negotiating table. Although there were heavy casualties, half-century later, the Korean Peninsula remains the same – sharply divided, militarized and highly volatile.

The Vietnam War, too, was an effort to counter the spread of communism from the Communist North to the South Vietnam war. According to Litwak, this war is best understood within the wider context of the Cold War (50). Here, the U.S was getting increasingly involved in efforts to stop the spread of communism in South East Asia. The U.S. reasoned that there was no need to appease the U.S.S.R, as Britain and France had attempted to do prior to the World War II. According to the U.S, this would lead to another identical world war disaster. Today, the U.S policy makers claim to have learned from the mistakes of the Vietnam War. However, one can draw an analogy to the U.S’s efforts to contain Islamic fundamentalism today and the policy of containment as applied during the World War II.

The Berlin crisis was the first major confrontation between the U.S and the USSR after the World War II. The Soviet Union had provoked the U.S by cutting off all communication links between Berlin and the West. The U.S, by maintain a stubborn stance, has demonstrated its intention to maintain a firm grip on its containment policy.

Throughout the Cold War, proxy war strategies were used by both contending powers for fear of that a direct confrontation would trigger a nuclear war. This nearly happened during the Cuban Crisis. The U.S had threatened to attack the Soviet forces that had put up missiles in Cuba. Today, the same kind of dilemma threatens to play out again as Obama administration tries to figure out what to do with Islamic states that fiddle around with nuclear plans such as Iran.

Nuclear weapons played a very critical role during the Cold War. The decision to drop Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki will always remain controversial. Historians tend to criticize the widely-held perception that the bomb was effective in, among other things, shortening the World War II. The success of the U.S’s policy of containment was largely dependent on how the country was going to prevent communism from spreading further. Both the U.S engaged in an arms race, not for strategic military purposes only, but as a show of might and an instillation of fear.

Both superpowers sought to protect their nuclear secrets. The handiest ways through which both powers could assess each other’s nuclear capability was through closely monitoring of uranium availability and production of enriched uranium. Additionally, it was easy to find out whenever management of nuclear production infrastructure and nuclear warhead testing activities were being carried out.

Washington was in dire need of such information in order to assess the capability of a Soviet nuclear strike. Such information would be useful in ascertaining the nature of anti-nuclear missiles that would need to be made. On the other hand, information on Moscow’s nuclear capability was needed for purposes of evaluating whether the Soviet anti-missiles could survive a U.S missile attack. Meanwhile, between 1945 and 1970, Soviet was in complete nuclear denial.

However, the 1950s and 1960s were the most dangerous times during the Cold War. Approaches to national defense were being shaped by the potent threat posed by possible nuclear fallouts. Additionally, the intelligence and foreign policy measures that were undertaken were reflective of the potent danger that a nuclear arms race posed to mankind.

McCormick argues that the U.S administration had a cause to be worried about the nature of physical protection being offered to Soviet’s nuclear plans and physical facilities (182). More importantly, Washington was concerned about the high priority that its adversary had put on nuclear plans and resources. The multilayered system of deception and denial that the Soviet Union maintained was aimed at emphasizing security and secrecy of the nuclear-related operations. Access to all nuclear facilities and personnel was very limited, information protection measures were strict, the counterintelligence posture was enhanced and strict technical countermeasures were firmly in place. The need to conceal the nuclear operations from foreign spies was so serious that nuclear cities were built in areas that were densely forested in the heart of USSR’s land mass. These cities did not appear in maps as they were assigned the names of towns that were located nearby. 

Within the context of such closely guarded nuclear secrets, the Soviet Union continued to exert influence in Eastern Europe, particularly in countries such as Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Poland. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. The Berlin Wall was the most potent symbol of the divisions that had brought about sharp divisions in Europe. This single event marked the beginning of a string of events that swept across east central Europe that year.

Throughout the Soviet bloc, reformers took over power in order to almost a half-decade of dictatorial communist rule. Meanwhile, as early as in 1980, a strong wave of strikes organized by Solidarity, a trade union that was anti-communist, had gained international attention. In 1989, four years since the rise to power of a Mikhail Gorbachev, a reformist, Solidarity was able to enter into round-table talks with the communist government. This is when the first multiparty elections were held in Poland. The powerful hand of U.S influence during the political transformation in Eastern Europe was evident even in the last day of the Cold War and beyond.

The revolutions of 1989 dealt a death knell to communism in Europe. Not only was Germany reunified in early 1990, but the revolution was spreading to the Soviet Union itself. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was a potent indication that the Cold War had come to an end. Throughout the Cold War duration, the U.S policy of containing communism was accompanied by calls for democratic transformation throughout Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Throughout this time, the U.S had constantly been giving invaluable support to the East Central Europe peoples in order to help them free themselves from communism.

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The American participation in the Middle East

In the contemporary setting, the U.S has been embroiled in efforts to contain the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East. The most important areas of focus here include the Bush doctrine of "pre-emption", Arab Israeli peace process, conflict with al Qaeda, the 9-11 terrorist attacks and more recently, the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Many questions arise regarding the main achievements that the U.S is trying to reach by preventing Islamic fundamentalism from spreading.

According to Gaddis, the pre-emption doctrine by the bush administration is ‘most significant and most dramatic shift’ in the international strategy of Washington since the Cold War broke out (65). According to Gaddis, even though the policy seems to have been implemented in the wrong way, the overall approach is succeeding.

Taft says that the doctrine of pre-emption is part of the United States National Security Strategy to intervene unilaterally around the world on the basis of perceptions of the existence of terrorist threats (561). The doctrine resembles the policy of containment in that it is not limited to only one geographical location. This means that the U.S can launch an attack on any nation on the basis of perceived threats. In exactly the same way, the U.S was using the policy of containment in order to justify military and political interventions in other countries.

The Arab-Israeli peace process is one of the key issues in which the U.S has been actively involved. A new twist to this issue has been brought about by deeply entrenched Islamic-fundamentalist interests. The U.S’s involvement in this peace process is ordinarily viewed by these Islamic fundamentalists as efforts to entrench their interests.

After the September 11th attacks on the U.S, the country retaliated by weeding out the Afghanistan, which the administration believed, was harboring Al Qaeda terrorists. U.S forces occupied Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban government along the way. Today, although the Obama administration has pledged to withdraw all the allied troops from Afghanistan, this exercise has been postponed. It appears that the administration will send more troops into Afghanistan in order to facilitate the restoration of order and a systematic approach to the way the country is governed.

On the dawn of March 2003, the U.S launched an attack on Iraq with an aim of overthrowing president Sadam’s rule. The U.S accused the military ruler of this Islamic country of being in making weapons of mass destruction and handing them over to Al-Qaeda terrorists. Heisbourg notes that when the U.S finally succeeded in toppling Sadam from power and arresting him, no biological and chemical weapons were found (78). The fatal mistake that was done during this invasion was reminiscent of the blunders made by U.S’s engagement in the Vietnam War.

There seems to be a preoccupation among U.S policymakers, of associating the influence of Islamic ideals with the spread of fundamentalism and terrorism. The main reason for this is because most of Al-Qaeda’s terrorist networks are found in Islamic countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, among others. Additionally, Arabian nations tend to show friendship and hospitality to Islamic fundamentalists, thereby increasing America’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks. The U.S has been steadfast in warning such nations that attempts to accommodate terrorist elements will lead to attacks.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is a long one, almost as long as the peace process that was initiated in an attempt to bring about a lasting solution. The role of the U.S in brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians is very significant. Failure in U.S efforts to bring about a lasting solution to the problem was marked when the peace talks entitled ‘The Roadmap to Peace’ came to an end without a solution to the problem being provided.

The Israeli-Arab conflict is significant because it is impossible to divorce the issue of Israel’s territorial integrity from the root of Arab states’ quarrels with the US. The modern-day Israel-Palestine conflict may be said to have been started when the U.N sanctioned the creation of a Jewish state in order to settle Jews. The U.S supported efforts to create this state, and even offered the new state the much needed assistance in the wake of Arab invasion of 1948.


The U.S, as a world’s super power, remains the most significant political player in international politics. When the World War II ended in 1945, the U.S and U.S.S.R emerged as the two most powerful nations in the world. In order to maintain a balance of power, the Cold War, arms race, and military confrontations in areas like Vietnam and Korea were inevitable. The struggle for dominance in world politics between the U.S and the Soviet Union is best viewed in the context of nuclear proliferation, the U.S policy of containment and the two superpowers’ opposing ideologies.

In terms of ideologies, the approach adopted by the U.S during the Cold War is analogous to the contemporary one that is being used to contain Islamic fundamentalism.  Both measures are aimed at entrenching capitalistic tendencies by thwarting threats in order to facilitate democratic governance.

During the Cold War, a spread of communism would mean a reduction in the U.S’s sphere of influence in global politics. The country, therefore, had to engage in proxy wars in order to raise its political stakes. These wars were fought in different parts of the world, including Asia, Africa and Latin America. Absence of these conflicts meant that the U.S would have to Marshall its own military capabilities and this would have triggered a nuclear confrontation.

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Likewise, Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption does not necessarily entail the military involvement of the U.S in war zones. The U.S relies on her friendly neighbors in hostile Middle East terrorist enclaves in order to carry out counter-terrorist campaigns. In the Middle East, the most significant nations are Saudi Arabia and her several friendly Arab neighbors.

In both the Cold War and the fight against terrorism, two costly mistakes were made. In the Cold War, this mistake was made through an attack on Vietnam. The U.S public opinion was so much anti-Vietnam war that the morale of the solders suffered a terrible blow. More recently, the Bush administration was heavily criticized for invading Iraq. There was insufficient evidence to show that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

The threat of nuclear proliferation among Arab states is reminiscent of the fears that had forced the U.S to try and investigate the level the Soviet Union’s nuclear power might. Today, the U.S relies mainly on the reports that are collected by the UN’s nuclear weapon’s inspectors. Despite the UN being opposed to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S went on and carried out the attack. Likewise, the UN has always been opposed to proliferation of nuclear weapons, yet both superpowers went on to use these very weapons in gunboat diplomacy.

The policy of deception and denial of the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1970 is identical to the one that many Islam states are using today. Iran has been consistently in denial of developing nuclear weapons. In the same vein, Iraq denied the existence of biological and chemical weapons until the last day, when the U.S invasion finally took place.

It appears that rather than the lessons of the past being learned, they are being replicated today. No one seems to indicate the manner in which Islam’s role in government is harmful, only that there seems to be a preoccupation to oppose it. For instance, although the pre-emptive policy was aimed at stopping an imminent attack, no imminent attack seemed possible in the case of Iraq. A very similar mistake was made during the opposition to communism. Although entrenching democracy in Vietnam and Korea was going to be in the best interest of the U.S, the manner in which it was done led more losses than gains. For instance, fifty years, later, the Korean Peninsula still remains a volatile, militarized area.

Today, just like 50 years ago, the U.S focuses on spreading democracy to Arab countries without creating room for integration into Islamic ways of governance. For the U.s, a system that is not purely democratic is not acceptable. Perhaps this is because of the perennial association between patronage systems that exist in Arab countries with Islamic fundamentalism.

The doctrine of pre-emption does not seem to replace the cold war strategy of deterrence and containment. In fact, it seems to further this strategy. This measure seems to serve the interest of the U.S, only that in terms of history, it has not been properly implemented. The bush administration was more careful with deployment of military forces than that of political rhetoric. Such costly mistakes only fuelled Islamic fundamentalism, increasing the U.S’s vulnerability to future terrorist attacks.

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