The containment policy was the strategy which the US applied to contain the communist regimes in Asia between 1945 and 1975. This policy was successful, but only to a particular extent since, along with the victories, the US also faced the inevitable losses and defeats. The Vietnam War had the most noticeable destructive effect on the image of the United States. It led the state to realize that in addition to the United States and the USSR, there are other independent forces in the world, including China, Japan, and Western Europe. The end of the containment policy was also marked by the “end of the era of colonialism,” when the overwhelming majority of Third World countries freed themselves from the influence of the metropolises and started independent rule. This paper aims to discuss the US’s containment policy in Asia between 1945 and 1975.
The Cold War and Its Impact of the US Policy
Tension in relations between the Soviet Union and the United States led to the emergence of hostile relations between the two states based on ideology. The subsequent period, which lasted forty years, became known as the “Cold War.” Relations with the Soviet Union strongly influenced the domestic and foreign policy of the United States. In the five years after the victory in World War II, ties between super-states deteriorated. By the early 1950s, the United States had developed a strategy to combat the “communist threat,” called the containment policy. (Brinkley, 653)
Previously, the United States made sure that the countries of Western Europe did not become communists by implementing the Marshall Plan, which consisted of providing material assistance to Europe to rebuild after the war. Now, the containment policy would prevent the spread of communism around the world. The United States, along with Western Europe, also formed NATO to defend against possible Soviet attacks. (Brinkley, 653) Therefore, after the North Korean communist forces invaded South Korea in 1950, the US was forced to react and participate in the war to stop the communists. The war with North Korea lasted for a long time. It led to the stabilization of the situation while maintaining the original borders between the two states, which increased the authority of the United States, despite the difficulties associated with the war.
The US also learned several important lessons from this war, especially regarding China’s behavior as a vigorous adversary on the battlefield, which prevented the US from helping South Korea occupy the north’s territories and successfully repulsed a massive offensive. The United States took a reasonably neutral position concerning China since it could not undermine the beginning of the seizure of power by Mao Zedong, even supporting the current corrupt government of Chiang Kai-shek. (Brinkley, 659) Therefore, soon after the end of World War II, the United States lifted restrictions on the industrial development of Japan, hoping to see it as an ally soon. Despite the romantic post-war attitude and the desire to see a single open world, the world states fought for decades to divide spheres of influence and establish parity of power.
The Korean War brought anti-communist US foreign policy into sharper focus and brutal persecution of the communists and fears of the “red menace” known as McCarthyism in domestic politics. (Brinkley, 677) The Korean War had several turning points, such as the initial North Korean offensive on June 24, 1950, the UN resolution on international assistance to South Korea, the US Army on June 30, 1950, with Douglas MacArthur commanding UN operations. (Brinkley, 670) The Americans invaded Incheon in September and drove the North Koreans back 38 parallel. Further, in October-December 1950, Truman decided to oust the communists from North Korea but was defeated due to China’s intervention. (Brinkley, 670) The Americans were driven back, and the communist regime again tried to seize parts of South Korea but was again driven out by the Americans, leading to a stalemate that dragged on until the 1953 peace agreement. (Brinkley, 671)
During the Korean War, MacArthur expressed wishes for an offensive against China and called for nuclear weapons. Still, despite significant support from the US population, he was removed from office. As a result of the Korean War, 140,000 American soldiers were killed and injured, and the war led to increased hysteria over the “communist threat.” (Brinkley, 672) Therefore, although the United States financially outnumbered all other world nations in the post-World War II period, the Cold War created an atmosphere of deep anxiety and discord. (Brinkley, 677)
The Vietnamese War
The Vietnam War was much less successful, becoming one of the most painful defeats in the history of US intervention in international conflicts. Initially, Eisenhower, who replaced Truman, pursued a moderate policy and refused to intervene in the war in Vietnam when French troops needed help to hold positions in Diene Bien Phu in 1954 against the forces of Ho Chi Minh, which received help from China and the USSR. (Brinkley, 701) As a result, the 1954 Geneva Agreements were signed, according to which Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel. The end of French commitments to Vietnam led to an expansion of the US presence, which helped establish a government in the south led by Ngo Dinh Diem, who behaved like a dictator. (Brinkley, 701) Eisenhower’s laissez-faire initially allowed the United States to represent Western forces in Vietnam single-handedly but subsequently led to a protracted and bloody war that ended in defeat and weakened the United States’ international image.
The Vietnam War began in 1960 when the National Liberation Front forces under the command of Ho Chi Minh, also known as the Viet Cong, began operations in the south. (Brinkley, 724) In 1963, Diem’s regime went through a crisis when several Buddhist monks burned seed in the square to protest Diem’s invocation of Catholicism. In the fall of 1963, Kennedy approved the generals’ conspiracy against Diem, who was assassinated. However, the new rulers replaced each other rather quickly, destabilizing the situation. (Brinkley, 724)
After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson announced that the United States would support anti-communist Vietnam, and by the end of 1967, 500,000 American soldiers were fighting in Vietnam. (Brinkley, 725) The US also intensified the air war, which was not successful as the communists constantly moved the Ho Chi Minh Trail and used a network of underground tunnels, shops, and factories. (Brinkley, 726) The bombing only strengthened nationalist sentiment in the north, and the brutal policies of resettlement and destruction of villages in the late 1960s were also ineffective. In general, in this war, the US command suffered defeat after defeat, and most decisions turned out to be weak.
The war dragged on, but Johnson did not dare to expand the military effort, fearing a repeat of the situation in Korea when US forces were pushed back by Chinese troops. (Brinkley, 726) The policy of containment became more and more like a deliberate engagement in a military conflict with unclear goals, and US civil society increasingly condemned the Vietnam War and demanded an end. However, Johnson stubbornly adhered to his position because he did not want to lose the image of the United States as a strong superpower. (Brinkley, 726)
The Tet NLF offensive on January 31, 1968, was unsuccessful, and US forces drove the communists out of the south. Still, television broadcasts of soldiers’ ruthless and dishonorable behavior on both sides pushed public condemnation of the war to a breaking point. (Brinkley, 731) The United States lost thousands of soldiers in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and did not benefit from participating in this conflict, which became one of the major failures of the containment policy.
After Richard Nixon succeeded Lyndon Johnson as president in 1969, he decided to continue the war, although he proposed some strategies that would return the United States to the concept of the containment policy rather than direct involvement in the conflict. As part of the Vietnamization program, the United States reduced the number of soldiers from 540,000 to 60,000 by training Vietnamese soldiers to replace the Americans. (Brinkley, 750)
As the conflict escalated, Nixon and his adviser Kissinger decided to strike at Ho Chi Minh bases in Laos and Cambodia using air and ground forces. This sparked further protests among US citizens, and subsequently, Pentagon documents were published revealing information about the war that was kept secret from the public. (Brinkley, 751) In 1971, two-thirds of Americans supported the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. (Brinkley, 751)
However, Nixon was reluctant to retreat until North Vietnam launched the Easter Offensive in 1972, which was halted by the presence of US troops. After unsuccessful attempts to sign peace on the terms of South Vietnam, the United States tried again to reverse the situation through the bombing of Hanoi, Haiphong, and other targets, but the planes were targeted in return. As a result, on January 27, 1973, an agreement was signed to end the Vietnam War. However, North Vietnam violated the agreement, and in 1975 the communists occupied Saigon. (Brinkley, 753) In the course of the war, the US lost $ 150 billion in direct costs, 57,000 US soldiers were killed, and 300,000 were injured. (Brinkley, 753)
Thus, the US’s containment policy in Asia between 1945 and 1975 was discussed. After the defeat in the Vietnam War, the United States was forced to reconsider its understanding of its role in the world arena and recognize the existence of forces other than the United States and the USSR, such as Western Europe, China, and Japan. Therefore, the Vietnam War became an example that the containment policy was ineffective. It was based on the idea that there are only two superpowers – the communist USSR and the democratic USA. The situation turned out to be much more multi-vector; misunderstanding of this fact was probably one reason for the defeat of the United States in the Vietnam War. At the same time, the containment policy was justified to a particular extent, since in this way, the United States defined its world positions and demonstrated its strength to the communist regimes.
Brinkley, Alan. The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People. McGraw-Hill, 2016.