How Domestic Politics and Balance of Power Considerations influenced the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations' Containment Policy

In the early years of the Cold War, both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations pursued a policy of containment to counter perceived Soviet aggression. Generally, the presidential administrations pursued this policy to maintain stability in the international arena, to maintain a balance of power, and also in a sense, to express disapproval of totalitarian, non-democratic regimes. Containment was expressed through a variety of policies and institutions: economic, political and, of course, military. The ways the early presidential administrations defined and implemented containment strategy inevitably changed in focus, importance, and emphasis over time. While both external and internal reasons accounted to an extent for the specifics of the containment policies of both administrations, the Truman administration was more concerned with maintaining a balance of power within the international community than necessarily appeasing internal pressures, especially fiscal pressures. The Eisenhower administration, on the other hand, assigned a greater importance to domestic politics in formulating its containment policies. First I will outline the differences of the two administrations, and then I will argue that the differences in the two administrations stem from their predominant influences: whereas external threats mainly shaped the Truman administration's containment policy,  internal politics mainly shaped the Eisenhower administration's containment policy.

First of all, both administrations had different economic priorities. Although Truman was concerned about keeping taxes low and government spending capped, he also saw the need for military expenditures in Europe and Asia to keep an adequate balance of power. Truman implemented an assortment of aid packages to Europe and Asia, in effect, to help those countries help themselves. He saw economic stability as essential for peace and stability in the intentional arena. Moreover, he saw giving aid to these countries as a way to subtly influence the ideology of their constituents. Furthermore, Truman accepted ongoing government economic intervention as an appropriate way to direct resources within the economy. Eisenhower, on the other hand, was more interested in a conservative fiscal policy, and tight control on government spending. He was more intent on trading with the countries of Europe than sending over aid packages. Of course, Eisenhower inherited a different world climate that was potentially less economically volatile than Truman. Nonetheless, Eisenhower saw an emphasis on trade as advantageous to America, even in the short term. Also, Eisenhower did not accept government economic intervention on a more ideological level -- he considered government planned economies too much like socialism.

Secondly, the administrations pursued different military strategies. Truman made more of a distinction between nuclear and conventional warfare. He saw that conventional warfare as a more plausible answer to peripheral containment, and clearly valued a strong conventional military. Eisenhower, for economic reasons, was less inclined to spend an exorbitant amount of money on conventional armies across the globe. He succeeded in blurring line between nuclear and conventional warfare and encouraged the idea that he was ready to use nuclear weapons at any time.

The Truman administration was more influenced by balance of power considerations than any other considerations, including domestic politics. Because of the external threats to the United States between 1947-1953, it was inevitable that these policies would have been pursued. Most significantly, Stalin at this point was perceived by the Western powers as having expansionist tendencies. Truman saw the Soviets as highly motivated to dominate the world, and committed to aggressively exploiting all opportunities to enlarge their sphere of influence. Considering the context of Truman’s post-W.W.II administration -- an era in the wake of a world war waged by totalitarian expansionist powers (Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan) – it is not difficult to see that the possibility of ideological expansionist tendencies from a totalitarian regime seemed to the populous and the politicians as extremely real and threatening. It is important to note, though, that the Truman administration was not threatened by communism per-say, (as subsequent administrations would be) but more with aggression. Or, to put more explicitly, he was more concerned with hostility coupled with capabilities. Such was the threat of the Soviet Union. Truman also argued that it was "arbitrary rule in and of itself, whether Left or Right, that contributes to instability in the world"  and he was committed to containing this sort of expansion. Truman was not, however, committed to an ideological crusade against communism, even at the height of the paranoia brought on by McCarthyism. His containment strategy was instead founded on sound balance of power principles.

Furthermore, the Truman administration was alarmed at Soviet expansion into clearly strategic areas of the world -- even those countries arguably beyond America’s “sphere of influence”, namely Iran, Turkey and Greece. Before Truman, both FDR and Churchhill had seen Stalin as “interested in exploiting opportunities for an expansion of Soviet control in the direction of the Mediterranean and the Near East."  These were areas of strategic importance that threatened US security and economic interests. As Truman outlined in his Memoirs, "he saw the Russian pressures on Iran and Turkey as an immediate threat to the global balance of power."   If the Soviet had control over Iranian oil, clearly the balance in capabilities would be upset.

Truman was under the impression that nothing but brute force would stop the Soviets. Because of this, he began to pursue a military policy, along with his economic or political policies, to contain the Soviets. Indeed, after 1950, containment was, for the most part, militarily. Even if Truman had wanted to pursue a strategy of containment based on economic deterrence - say, influencing Western bloc countries through aid packages and favorable trade agreements to support democratic institutions and democratic parties, instead of the new communist parties - it is arguable whether this would have been successful. The Marshall Plan was one such way to influence these countries, but nonetheless (as we can see in France, Italy, Greece and Turkey) communist parties secured a foothold in their country’s political arena and gained popularity. Also, if Truman had wanted to pursue a strategy of containment based on political persuasion - say, convincing Germany solely with rhetoric that America would support a united Germany (which, indeed, they did try to do) - it is arguable whether that would have worked in deterring the popular Soviet-influenced communist parties. Clearly, the Truman administration had to pursue a strategy of military containment.

However, internal politics dictated quite the opposite strategy. The republican leadership in both the Senate and the House was committed to fulfill their campaign promises of a 20% reduction of income taxes. At this point, Truman had to convince both the Senate and the American people how pressing the international situation was, and how important it was to pursue these expensive policies of containment. This led to the Truman Doctrine, in March 1947. Eventually, Truman was able to pursue a perimeter defense containment strategy -- a more singular, coherent, easy-to-swallow policy -- to persuade Congress and the populous of the pressing threat of the Soviets. Kennan had warned against framing a rigid policy towards the USSR because he believed that transforming expertise into policy guidelines distorted the expertise: "It was misleading to assume it possible to describe in a few pages a program designed to achieve US objectives with respect to the USSR." (pg 52, Geddis) But Truman had to. He needed to appeal to the masses, and like all leaders of democracies, he was shackled to public opinion. However, Truman (and his eloquent Secretary of State) ultimately led Congress and the populous to adapt his point of view and, unlike the Eisenhower administration,  was not led by them. It must be said, though, that Truman was not totally unmoved by domestic politics, especially the need to cap spending. Regardless, under NSC-68 he increased military spending to $45-50 bill. a year. The perceived threat by the Soviets led Truman to pursue this strategy which he rightly considered essential. Clearly, any president in Truman's situation would have pursued the same policies of military containment because it was the only option made available to him.

The Eisenhower administration, though, had a more subjective influence on their containment strategy. First of all, two months into the Eisenhower administration, Stalin died and with him the threat of a Stalinization of Eastern Europe. It would be 2 more years until Kruschev came to power, and until that time, the Soviet Union had no leader and coherent international expansionist strategy. It is difficult to determine how much of the perceived Soviet threat was indeed accurate, considering the shaky domestic politics of the USSR, and how much of the threat was illusionary. But even before his election, Eisenhower himself was committed to containing Soviet expansion. Eisenhower even ran for president to take the bid from Taft whom he believed would revert the United States back into unilateralism and isolationism. To Eisenhower, this was detrimental, as he believed personally in containment strategies.  Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, was also a committed anti-Soviet. The Eisenhower administration sought to portray the USSR as strictly an aggressor state (even so it is arguable that it really was) because this is a more simplistic foreign policy line to sell to Congress and the American people.

The Eisenhower administration, though, was much more inclined to favor public opinion and domestic politics in shaping their containment policies. Eisenhower’s primary goal was to cut government spending and taxes. His cabinet consisted solely of conservative fiscal policy makers, who were determined to reduce all but the most essential expenditures. This led the administration to cut out economic assistance plans altogether, and to focus militarily on nuclear arms as a tactical and strategic deterrent. This was cost-effective. Granted, Eisenhower’s reasons for his conservative fiscal policies could also be attributed to balance of power concerns. Eisenhower was worried that the effects of an over-inflated and over-heated US economy could be detrimental to America’s abilities in the global arena. Indeed, Eisenhower warned, “‘It has been coldly calculated by the Soviet leaders ... by their military threat to force upon America and the free world an unbearable security burden leading to economic disaster.’”  Eisenhower argued that a strong American economy might well be the most valuable asset it possessed. Nevertheless, as a politician, he knew how important it is to cut taxes to retain popularity; it cannot be disputed that Ike was a popular president who knew how to maintain his popularity.

Because Eisenhower pursued a strategy of nuclear deterrence, it was important that he subsequently blur the line between nuclear warfare and conventional warfare. He had to give the Soviets the impression that he was ready to use nuclear arms at any point when he felt that American security interests were at stake. In various crisis, namely the Suez Canal crisis, Eisenhower and Dulles were overly confident in their strategic nuclear strike capabilities. As Brown argues, the administration was confident that they could deter Soviet military moves as long as they held the threat of nuclear attack over their heads. Thus, Eisenhower was able to deter possible Soviet expansion without raising taxes and upsetting the domestic program.

In conclusion, although both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations sought to contain the Soviet Union’s expansionist tendencies, they took their influence for policy from different sources. Thus, their foreign policy had a different approach. The Truman administration was more concerned with Stalin’s expansionist tendencies, and sought to contain him by the best means possible, which he considered to be conventional warfare. Truman used rhetoric and threat to sell his policy to Congress and the American people, because his policy was expensive. Eisenhower, on the other hand, was more concerned with his popularity and cutting taxes than pursuing expensive overseas militaries. He was able to cut costs by using nuclear capabilities as a deterrent against the Soviets. Thus, he used a more capital-intensive, and less labor-intensive means to detract Soviet expansion. Because he was able to cut costs so effectively, it was not as important for him to sell him policy to the public. That is namely why Eisenhower was such a popular president.

Danielle Costa
October 26, 1998
Tufts University: American Foreign Policy


E-mail Danielle! danielle@indyflicks.com