Commentary Magazine


Containment

To the Editor:

Robert W. Tucker [“Beyond Détente,” March] quite correctly points out that there is little evidence that Soviet hostility to the West has substantially diminished. Furthermore, as he also notes, the proposition that Soviet military power can no longer be effectively employed to serve the purpose of an expansionist foreign policy cannot survive critical examination. . . . The rapid development of Soviet naval forces with an expanding interventionary capability may be used to impede the flow of oil to Europe, and indeed the mere capability may be converted to political leverage.

Consequently, Mr. Tucker concludes that there is no escape from a policy of containment, but the “containment” he recommends is highly deceptive and virtually amounts to an emasculation of American power to resist Communist expansion, despite the lip service he pays to the Communist threat. For he supports a concept of containment limited to the “conventional requirements of balance of power” (a most ambiguous concept), to which he opposes the Truman Doctrine, with its indiscriminate commitment to intervene anywhere and everywhere against revolutionary change or to resist wars of national liberation. He asserts that the Truman Doctrine in effect proclaims “an interest in maintaining a stable world order—presided over by American power—that would insure the triumph of liberal-capitalist values and institutions.” He argues that in substantial measure the doctrine accounts for Vietnam; therefore, containment is discredited at the “margin”; by the same logic, intervention by the U.S. to prevent expansion of Communism in Angola, Mozambique, Korea, Southeast Asia, or the Middle East would fall outside the scope of Mr. Tucker’s concept of necessary containment. . . .

On March 12, 1947, President Truman went before a joint session of Congress and stated: “I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure. . . . I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.” Mr. Tucker cynically believes that Truman’s real intention was to “insure the triumph of liberal-capitalist values,” and he warns us that we will “very likely be in for a very bad time” if we attempt to deny the USSR the opportunity of “making use of its newly acquired power” to expand Soviet influence.

Even on his own interpretation of national security as a function of balance of power between states, the expansion of Soviet power into Somalia, Soviet naval stations on the east coast of Africa, the potential closing of the Straits of Malacca, a Communist-dominated Mozambique choking off the supply of critical minerals to the West from South Africa and impeding the flow of oil to Europe—all this could just as surely isolate America and shift the balance of power as could Soviet threats to Europe as such. Indeed, a direct confrontation in Europe is assiduously avoided by the Soviet Union, especially when expansion by proxy is more readily achieved through inciting and supplying aggression by North Korea and Hanoi, by the Cubans in their invasion of Angola, and by the Egyptians in their war against Israel.

David S. Lichtenstein
Chevy Chase, Maryland

____________

 

Robert W. Tucker writes:

If we put aside David S. Lichtenstein’s needless polemics, excessive sensitivity, and partially mistaken characterizations, his letter is a useful reminder that it is not enough to agree on the continued need to contain Soviet power. Even if this need were generally conceded, controversy would persist over the scope and purpose of containment. Mr. Lichtenstein apparently approves of the version of containment implicit in the Truman Doctrine and, despite the changes that have occurred since the late 1940′s, finds no reason to depart from this version of containment today. On the contrary, these changes—particularly the growth of Soviet power—are found by him to make the containment of the Truman Doctrine all the more necessary now and in the foreseeable future.

In reply to Mr. Lichtenstein, I can only repeat what I said in my article. The version of containment he advocates is very likely to lead to disaster, given the rough parity in arms today between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets cannot be expected passively to sit on their arms. Having acquired them, they will be put to political use. If we are to deny their use everywhere, we must be willing and prepared to make an effort more demanding than the effort made in the years of the classic cold war. Even if such effort were desirable, which I deny, it is no more than rhetorical to ask whether there is now a willingness to make it.

It does not follow, however, that we should confine containment to Western Europe and Japan while simply abandoning the “margin.” What does follow is that we will have to limit our responses on the margin, and to do so largely in terms of the anticipated effects on the center. To take the obvious example: we cannot permit Soviet actions which might impede—let alone shut off—the flow of oil to Europe. But this is very different from advocating resistance to expansion of Soviet influence where-ever it threatens either because such expansion is seen as an intrinsic evil or because expansion anywhere is found to open the way to expansion everywhere. Although he does not openly say so, I can only conclude that Mr. Lichtenstein’s criticism is largely based on the above propositions. If my sin in his eyes is that of having rejected them, then I must plead guilty.

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