How did containment become the dominant metaphor in Cold War U.S. Strategic Communications?

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: War Studies

Abstract

"Containment" came to be a guiding metaphor for understanding U.S.-Russia relations and consolidated itself as a dominant framework in the early Cold War years (1940s-50s). As it is generally understood, containment gives its name to the U.S. policy aimed at curbing the spread of Communism and limiting Soviet influence around the world. Initially this was to be achieved by economic means, with the aim of establishing a liberal democratic world order. However, soon the policy also included overt and covert psychological (warfare) operations, deterrence through nuclear weapons, and direct military involvement, as well as public diplomacy and strategic communications. It also included an elaborate programme of domestic "emotion management" in the face of threat of nuclear war through the Federal Civil Defense Agency. In the name of containment, President Eisenhower and his "New Look" policy were able to justify the biggest armament in history, that of nuclear weapons during the 1950s.

This PhD project explores containment beyond policy making, nuclear strategy, and military doctrine. Extending the traditional scholarship on containment, I approach containment from a Strategic Communications perspective, considering containment-related policies in parallel with the language used to describe nuclear weapons, and the discursive fields of the media, popular culture, the home, and science. What were the assumptions within containment and, later on, in the connections drawn with other discourses, that would justify, and offer a seemingly logical grounding for, the policies they inspired? How was it that by the mid-1950s, it had become "common sense" even for a primary school child to recognize that a nuclear attack from the Soviets might be imminent and that the correct response would be to "duck and cover"?

While this PhD is looking at Cold War history, it is also extremely timely. Over the past decade there has been a rejuvenation of cold war rhetoric, intensifying over the past few years. From Edward Lucas' The New Cold War (2008), to Michael McFaul's From Cold War to Hot Peace (2018), from the explosion of nuclear bunker sales in the US to calls for "containment" of North Korea and Iran. Terms such as "containment", "Cold War 2.0", "East vs. West", "deterrence", have become part of the everyday political vocabulary again. Has the containment metaphor returned or did it never disappear? Is this simply a convenient slippage back into comfortable ways of thinking about international conflict? And why is it so appealing to use the container metaphor to describe international relations? What are the underlying assumptions in the containment metaphor and model that might be constraining political and strategic thinking in today's political landscape?

Publications

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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2104287 Studentship ES/P000703/1 01/01/2018 30/06/2021 Leonie Haiden