Rollback vs Containment vs Detente (A Levels Cold War)

Written by Aaron




To understand the Globalisation of the Cold War for the CIE A-Level History exam, we need three ingredients: facts, theory, and ideas.

I have previously written a subject knowledge cheat sheet that shows a list by region of every example of globalisation you need to know, as well as a brief idea of the ‘type’ of globalisation in those examples. This covers the facts part.  Access the cheat sheet here.

You’ll notice in that guide, I used terms such as rollback and containment. What do these mean? What are their implications?

By the end of this article, you will understand the theory behind the globalisation of the Cold War (specifically with regards to the Cambridge A-Level History syllabus).

Quick Introduction

Briefly, rollback, containment and detente were three different kinds of foreign policies that the USA could choose from.

Rollback: This is the most ‘aggressive’ kind of foreign policy. It means that the USA would overthrow communist regimes and replace them with friendlier regimes.

Containment: This is the ‘middle’ option. It means the USA would ‘contain’ the spread of communism. To do this, they would defend existing regimes from communism, but wouldn’t take the extra step to overthrow a communist regime in power (that would be rollback).

Detente: This is the ‘friendly’ option. It means the USA would seek cooperation with the USSR. Bear in mind that the word ‘detente’ is usually used to refer to the improvement in USA-USSR relations in the 1970s. It was not really a policy seriously considered before that.

*Note: while we usually use the terms rollback and containment to refer to US foreign policy choices, in reality, some of the foreign policy choices taken by the USSR could be labelled as rollback/containment as well.

Each policy has its pros/cons for the USA, as well as different impacts on the globalisation of the Cold War. Let’s go through them.

Rollback

Advantages:

  • Actually Expands the sphere of US/anti-communist influence.
  • Ultimate form of ‘gaining ground’ in the Cold War.

Disadvantages:

  • Increases tension with the USSR/communist nations.
  • Costly to execute.
  • Risky — intervention may fail and embarrass the USA.
  • Risky — even if successful, new regime may not be stable.
  • New regimes may not embody US values (e.g. anti-communist but also anti-democratic).

Examples of rollback:

  • North Korea/China in the Korean War 1950 (failed)
  • Bay of Pigs Invasion 1961 (failed)
  • Invasion of the Dominican Republic 1965
  • Iranian Coup 1953
  • Guatemala Coup 1954
  • Brazilian Coup 1964
  • Bolivian Coup 1971
  • Chile Coup 1973

That’s a long list eh. The first three (North Korea/China, Dominican Republic, Bay of Pigs) are examples of direct US military action. The rest are coups — they are a less aggressive form of rollback: supporting local rebel groups to overthrow communist regimes by giving aid/intelligence.

Analysis of rollback:

Officially, the USA switched to a policy of containment somewhere during the Korean War. Unofficially, we see a tonne of rollback policies nevertheless.

The use of rollback in the Korean War is of special importance. Rather than merely defending South Korea against communism (containment), the US pushed too far and sought to ‘rollback’ the North Korean communist regime. General MacArthur of the USA even considered pursuing rollback in China, but was stopped by Truman. Regardless, China was provoked by the rollback of North Korea and launched a counter-offensive, pushing the USA back.

This shows that rollback may create further tensions. One reason for not pursuing rollback in Eastern Europe (e.g. in the Hungarian Uprising 1956) was fear of war with the USSR.

Rollback policies were mainly implemented in Latin America, far away from the USSR/China. This might be because the geographical distance meant less chance of direct conflict between the USA and USSR/China.

Eisenhower engaged in 2 rollback policies (Iran, Guatemala). JFK tried a rollback in Cuba but failed (Bay of Pigs). Lyndon Johnson i.e. LBJ had his hand in two rollbacks (Dominican Republic, Brazil).

Containment

Advantages:

  • Maintains the status quo — keeps things stable
  • Easier to justify (not being the aggressor, merely defending)

Disadvantages:

  • Maintains the status quo — not actually gaining ground
  • Still kind of expensive — have to defend multiple regions globally
  • May still end up with dire conflicts e.g. Vietnam

Examples of containment:

  • South Korea in the Korean War 1950
  • Formation of SEATO 1954
  • Eisenhower Doctrine 1957
  • Alliance for Progress 1961
  • Vietnam War

The Korean War and Vietnam War are examples of where containment became messy direct military action needed to defend countries against communist takeovers. It shows that even though containment may not be as ‘aggressive’ as rollback, it can still lead to conflict.

SEATO and the Eisenhower Doctrine are examples of where containment was cleaner. They were merely promises of mutual defence in Southeast Asia and the Middle East respectively, but those promises were never cashed in, so little conflict arose. The Alliance for Progress is like the Marshall Plan — it sought to give aid to countries to prevent the economic conditions that may allow communism to fester.

Analysis of containment:

This was the official policy of the USA for the most part. The most famous examples of its use were in Korea (where they switched from rollback to containment) and Vietnam.

Containment was the ‘middle ground’. It did not cede any influence to the USSR, but it did not provoke World War III by seeking to overtake the USSR either.

You’ll notice there aren’t many examples of containment in the list above, despite this being the main policy of the USA. Compared to the list for rollback, it seems odd. However one could point out that containment is, for the most part, a passive policy. It only ‘becomes a thing’ when some communist force tries to take power of a nation under the USA’s watch.

This may explain why the formation of pacts/alliances and the provision of aid were useful containment policies. The guarantee of USA support arguably helped deter communist influence without a conflict even breaking out to begin with. In other words, the containment list is shorter because History doesn’t record the events that never took place to begin with.

Other Policies

When discussing the globalisation of the Cold War from 1950-1975, we don’t really talk about detente policies. There’ll be a separate section discussing detente later on.

Besides containment/rollback/detente, another possible alternative was the policy of isolationism. This means that the USA just pulled away from the international scene altogether. This policy was not very popular after WWII and received little support.

Also note that the USSR sort-of practiced its own forms of containment and rollback. In this instance, you could think of it as the USSR trying to ‘contain’ or ‘rollback’ capitalism.

USSR-containment examples include support for Egypt (funding the Aswan Dam) and Cuba.

USSR-rollback examples may include crushing the Hungarian Uprising + replacing their leaders, funding the Hukhabalap rebels in the Philippines, and supporting FRELIMO in Mozambique.

For more on the Globalisation of the Cold War, see my Subject Knowledge Fact Sheet on it.