Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War

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Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis. Oxford University Press, 2005, rev. and expanded ed., 391 pp.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 brought a symbolic close to two decades of US foreign policy. As the US military adjusts from nearly 20 years of counterterror operations, many are seeking to understand “strategic competition” and the military’s role in it. One useful approach is to look for lessons from history.

The Cold War provides one potential starting point for those seeking a relevant historical framework. In Strategies of Containment, renowned historian John Lewis Gaddis offers insight into the challenges of crafting US foreign policy during the Cold War. The 2005 edition of the book—originally published in 1982—adds context to the close of the Cold War and, despite its age, salient lessons for strategic thinkers in the current geopolitical environment.

Gaddis divides Cold War containment into five strategies and addresses each chronologically. Gaddis analyzes each administration’s policy from Roosevelt in the final days of World War Two through the Reagan administration. He identifies trends, strengths, and weaknesses of each approach. While the historical details and perspective are excellent, Gaddis builds on the history by viewing it through the lens of strategy. One of the strongest aspects of his analysis is his presentation of the recurring debate regarding symmetric vice asymmetric approaches to competition with the Soviet Union. Thus, his critiques revolve around the effectiveness of each administration’s strategy of containment, specifically, how well it connected ends to means, “intentions to capabilities, [and] objectives to resources” (p. viii). This analysis is timely for leaders today as they seek to define the military’s role in the context of strategic competition.

Gaddis’s chapters on the inception of containment—largely a product of George Kennan during the Truman administration—and the Vietnam War offer compelling cases for the importance of strategy in ensuring ways and means serve the desired political end state rather than becoming a substitute for it. This cautionary tale alone would be sufficient to recommend the work for students of strategy. However, the most thought-provoking reading is in the epilogue, where Gaddis addresses the lessons for a post–Cold War world.

In the final chapter, Gaddis proposes a framework to draw lessons from history. He refers to this concept as “transferability,” the notion that previous strategies can provide lessons for current events (p. 380). While useful in its simplicity, the concept leaves an opportunity to draw the wrong lessons from history by failing to consider the nuances of the current environment and place them alongside an appropriate historical comparison. As a Cold War historian and founder of the Yale Grand Strategy program, Gaddis was well aware of this potential. He offers the warning that “the context can never again be that of the Cold War, [as] not all aspects of that strategy are likely to transfer equally well” (p. 381). This warning, with the accompanying commentary and examples, is the greatest strength of his book and a key reason it remains relevant to military leaders today. He resists the urge to oversimplify and urges fellow strategists to do the same. The lessons he draws from his analysis of the strategies employed through the Cold War are neither prescriptive nor intended for unquestioning application to the contest with China or Russia today. Instead, Gaddis’s work invites critical engagement from the reader, offering the lessons of past failures as a warning against simplistic approaches in the complex world of near-peer competition.

Strategies of Containment provides few obvious areas for critique. One possible criticism is the limited space devoted to the Carter administration and even, to some extent, the Reagan administration. Accepting that much of the source material remained classified when the book was published, the coverage of that period seems an abrupt departure from the depth of analysis for the preceding administrations. Another potential complaint is the lack of analysis dedicated to US foreign policy during the immediate post–Cold War era. By 2005 there was an opportunity to address the enduring themes from containment manifested in the strategies of post–Cold War administrations. The scant space devoted to the strategies of those administrations leaves an opportunity for others to build on the history Gaddis presents in this incisive work.

Acknowledging those shortcomings, Strategies of Containment remains an insightful analysis and strongly recommended reading for military leaders pondering the challenges of strategic competition today. Strategic thinking requires creativity, reflection, and an appreciation of history in its proper context. In all those areas, this book excels. Gaddis’s prose is engaging, his narrative compelling, and the lessons remain as relevant to strategists today as in the Cold War.

Maj Joshua W. Dryden, USAF



"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."