TWE Remembers: NSC-68
from The Water's Edge

TWE Remembers: NSC-68

The cover of NSC-68. (Harry S. Truman Library and Museum)
The cover of NSC-68. (Harry S. Truman Library and Museum)

“United States Objectives and Programs for National Security” is a rather bland title for a report. Especially one that turns out to help drive history. But that’s the formal name given to NSC-68, the foundational document for America’s Cold War strategy. It was issued by President Harry Truman’s National Security Council for review on April 14, 1950.*

To understand the origins of NSC-68, it helps first to know some background. The second half of 1949 had been a tough time for the Truman administration on the foreign policy front. In August, the Soviet Union detonated an atomic device for the first time, ending the U.S. nuclear monopoly far sooner than Washington thought would be the case. Then, in October, Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the communist People’s Republic of China. That set off a bitter debate in the United States over who “lost” China, a debate that helped set the stage for Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s famed Wheeling, West Virginia speech alleging that communists were running rampant at the State Department.

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The Soviet A-bomb test and the victory of the Chinese communists helped prompt Truman to order a reevaluation of the country’s national security policy on January 31, 1950. The task of leading the review was handed over to a group of officials known officially as the State-Defense Policy Review Group. They were led by Paul Nitze, the director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, and supported by Secretary of State Dean Acheson.

The participants in the review believed that the United States needed a tougher foreign policy, and they set out to use their report to convince the rest of government that they were right. Robert Lovett, a consultant to the project, said that the memo should use “Hemingway sentences” to make its points. “If we can sell every useless article known to man in large quantities,” Lovett argued, “we should be able to sell our very fine story in larger quantities.” Acheson thought along the same lines. “The purpose of NSC-68,” he later wrote, “was to so bludgeon the mass mind of ‘top government’ that not only could the President make a decision but that the decision could be carried out.”

NSC-68’s authors took Lovett’s and Acheson’s advice. The report came packed with more rhetorical ammunition than most other government memos. The dramatic tone started in the introduction:

The issues that face us are momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself. They are issues which will not await our deliberations. With conscience and resolution this Government and the people it represents must now take new and fateful decisions.

So what were the momentous issues? The Soviet Union (and its satellites) stood diametrically opposed to everything that the United States (and by extension the rest of the “free world”) stood for:

The implacable purpose of the slave state to eliminate the challenge of freedom has placed the two great powers at opposite poles. It is this fact which gives the present polarization of power the quality of crisis.

What made matters worse was that the Soviet threat was growing rapidly and more threatening by the day. The United States had to respond to what would soon be an existential threat.

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The question was, however, how to respond? The report outlined four possible strategies. The first three—isolationism, war, or a continuation of the current strategy—it (not surprisingly) dismissed as inadequate and dangerous.

What NSC-68 proposed instead was the “rapid build-up of political, economic, and military strength… in the free world.” The United States should use the time afforded by its (dwindling) nuclear advantage to:

launch a build-up of strength which will support a firm policy directed to the frustration of the Kremlin design. The immediate goal of our efforts to build a successfully functioning political and economic system in the free world backed by adequate military strength is to postpone and avert the disastrous situation which, in light of the Soviet Union’s probable fission bomb capability and possible thermonuclear bomb capability, might arise in 1954 on a continuation of our present programs. By acting promptly and vigorously in such a way that this date is, so to speak, pushed into the future, we would permit time for the process of accommodation, withdrawal and frustration to produce the necessary changes in the Soviet system. Time is short, however, and the risks of war attendant upon a decision to build up strength will steadily increase the longer we defer it.

In some ways, NSC-68 was simply proposing the continuation of the doctrine of containment originally advocated by George Kennan. To Nitze and others drafting NSC-68, the strategy of containment was:

one which seeks by all means short of war to (1) block further expansion of Soviet power, (2) expose the falsities of Soviet pretensions, (3) induce a retraction of the Kremlin’s control and influence, and (4) in general, so foster the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system that the Kremlin is brought at least to the point of modifying its behavior to conform to generally accepted international standards.

But NSC-68 was a far more militarized version of containment than Kennan envisioned. NSC-68 called for more aggressive efforts to counter Soviet expansion, efforts that would be backed up by a massive increase in both conventional and nuclear armaments. The costs associated with such a buildup were likely to be enormous—NSC-68 did not specify exactly how big the bill would be or when it might stop growing.

The lack of a price tag unnerved President Truman. He was trying to rein in defense spending. NSC-68 would mean much higher defense spending, which in turn meant either higher taxes or painful spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. So rather than immediately approving the memo, he instead asked for an assessment of what NSC-68 would cost to implement. As a result, the fate of NSC-68 and the sweeping changes it advocated were in doubt in late spring 1951.

The debate over NSC-68 might have sputtered out and the memo might have become nothing more than a historical footnote if not for North Korea’s invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950. The attack by Moscow’s ally seemed to confirm what NSC-68 had argued, the Soviet slave state was on the march and only American military might could stop it. Truman’s nearly immediate decision to order U.S. troops to come to South Korea’s aid guaranteed a major jump in U.S. defense spending. (Truman had proposed a $13 billion defense budget for FY 1951; it ended up ballooning to $58 billion.) With cost no longer an obstacle, NSC-68 became official policy. As Acheson later observed, “Korea saved us.”

Historians might debate Acheson’s claim—and some have. They might also debate whether NSC-68 correctly gauged Soviet intentions and actions, or exaggerated the Soviet threat and exposed the United States and the rest of the Free World to needless conflicts and crises. What isn’t in dispute is that the blandly named “United States Objectives and Programs for National Security” set the basic guidelines that would govern U.S. national security policy for four decades.

*The date that NSC-68 was issued, or what that means precisely, comes with some mystery. The report itself carries two dates. It is dated April 14 at the top of the report and then dated April 7 in a subheading. The secondary historical literature isn’t much help here either. Some historians cite April 7, some cite April 14, and some cite other dates. I take a simple approach to these matters. The first date on the report is April 14, so that is the date I am going with. Those of you with more knowledge about NSC-68 are welcome to work through the various dates in the comment box below.