On his Powell History Recommends blog, Scott Powell has posted an excellent essay on the Truman Doctrine. This doctrine committed America to checking the spread of communism by “supporting free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by the communist government.” The result was that the United States ended up fighting proxy wars that had nothing to do with legitimate American interests, and providing military and financial aid to some dubious nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia. In broad strokes, Powell surveys the consequences of this doctrine, which we may now look upon from some distance - and the track record is not good. It's well worth reading the full text: The Truman Doctrine vs. American Self-Interest .
This topic called to mind an opinion I've been developing over a long time - namely, we never really needed to worry about the spread of communism. Notice that I did not say we didn't need to worry about communism; I am saying that we need not have feared the spread of communism in the sense of Eisenhower’s “falling dominoes.”
(Let me inject here that I’m not yet certain about my conclusion; it needs more study. I am certain about both of the individual premises below, but I don’t know if I’m missing some historical details that would change the context.)
Here are the two main reasons for my position.
First, quite simply, communism doesn't work. It’s a disaster in theory and in practice. (The moral is the practical, as Ayn Rand identified.) A country that enslaves its citizens simply cannot prosper in the long term. Sure, it can buy time by invading its neighbors and living parasitically off its new host, but it will soon drain it dry. One cannot threaten and beat a man into producing anywhere near the value that a free mind can produce; one cannot indefinitely punish the best people and reward the incompetent. A communist country will inevitably fall of its own weight. So... let it fall.
In fact, one could argue that containment did the Soviets a favor. The more the Soviet Union spread out, the more difficult it was to survive as a communist country. (Notice that China has survived only by permitting some measure of “capitalism,” such as it is, to creep into the mixture.) In a free nation, every citizen is (on average) a producer who pulls more than his own weight; in a communist nation, every citizen is (on average) a mouth to feed, a burden to the rest. Plus, the more heavy-handed the communist government would have to be in order to hold everything together, the more it would foment unrest that would accelerate its demise. Ironically, perhaps the USSR would have been doomed much earlier if it had spread out quicker. For all the problems there are with Ronald Reagan as a President, at least he seemed to recognize the bankruptcy of communism; his predecessors saw a lion that needed to be caged, while Reagan saw a puny tick that was helpless without a host.
The second reason is that no matter how well intentioned it may be, no free nation can force another to resist communism. One cannot make people want to be free; it’s a contradiction in terms. It is possible to crush an enemy so thoroughly that they reject their former ways and adopt relative freedom - Japan after World War II is an example. But I don’t see how the United States could have hoped to succeed in stopping communism by sending military forces to a remote jungle, to prop up a population that favored some other, perhaps “milder,” variant of socialism.
This is not to say that no other nations were worth helping: Scott Powell mentioned Taiwan and possibly South Korea as potentially worthy of aid. Perhaps there were some small number of relatively weak countries that deserved our help. But the few countries in the world that demonstrably favored freedom, and thus were allies certainly worthy of support, were also not seriously or immediately threatened by a communist takeover. I'm thinking here of England, Australia, Japan, Canada, and Israel, which were not direct military targets of the Soviet Union or China.
I also must stress that in any direct threat by the Soviet Union or any other communist country (and a bunch of ICBM’s with nuclear payloads pointed in our direction certainly seems to constitute a threat), I favor a direct strike against them if militarily possible without committing suicide. Not a proxy war. A direct strike. But that is a separate issue.