Understanding American Foreign Policy
Political Science 128
Mary Baldwin College, Staunton VA 24401
by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
Origins of the document. In April 1950, the Secretariat of the National Security Council received from the State Department a Top Secret seventy page document titled "United States Objectives and Programs for National Security." The document had been prepared on Pres. Truman's request, and the task had been assigned to the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department, a body created earlier by Secretary of State George C. Marshall. Senior diplomat George Kennan had headed up Policy Planning in the late 1940s and his status in the Truman Administration had been elevated further: in 1949, his senior position was re-titled "Counselor." Kennan's deputy at Policy Planning, Paul Nitze, was elevated to fill the Director's position by Secretary of State Dean Acheson (Marshall's successor). Acheson more than Kennan leaned toward greater emphasis on military preparedness and military means of response to the Soviets; and some scholars (May: 8) believe Nitze was asked to prepare the report Truman had requested precisely because he agreed with Acheson in this important area. Thus, while the document that was labeled NSC-68 primarily was authored by Nitze, it came to the National Security Council, and more importantly to Truman, associated both with the views of the original author of the containment policy, veteran diplomat George Kennan, and with the emphases of Truman's new Secretary of State. Kennan's prestige within the administration, and after, was enormous for he not only had more than two decades experience as a diplomat, he had intimate knowledge of the Soviets inasmuch as he had been second in command of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, 1944-46. Notably, it was his secret 1946 "Long Telegram" from Moscow that had done most to turn thinking within the Administration in the direction of a changed policy toward the aggressive Soviets. In 1947, these views received wide audience in Kennan's famous Mr. X article in Foreign Affairs. Yet, by 1950, Kennan was having second thoughts. The harder line favored by Acheson, and Nitze, emerged in NSC-68.
The world view of N.S.C. 68. In the secret position paper #68 (received by Pres. Truman on April 7, 1950), Nitze expressed a position which came to exercise considerable influence over US foreign policy in the 1950s and beyond. It was the view of those in the government who were heirs to the skeptical view of the USSR. NSC 68 found "the Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world" (FRofUS: 237).
The Truman Doctrine of 1947 had implied a reactive policy of containment of Soviet subversion and aggression worldwide. The vision of NSC 68 suggested, contrarily, that the US must not just react but should take the initiative, lest our "integrity and vitality ...be subverted or destroyed by one means or another... [by] the Kremlin" (FRofUS: 238).
Means and Ends: The Truman Doctrine of Containment had been creative in its search for measured means -- techniques consistent with the values of a free society-- by which to oppose Soviet expansionism. It pursued a Cold War against communism by way of treaties, military aid, military training and advice, and economic aid. All was designed to buttress free peoples and to support their quests to realize democratic governments in the face of communist subversion and the menace of Soviet military power. NSC 68 urged changes in policy which would abandon this careful search for policy instruments. It proposed, instead, a wholly new framework within which to consider the choice of means by which to oppose communism: "The integrity of our system will not be jeopardized by any measures, covert or overt, violent or non-violent, which serve the purposes of frustrating the Kremlin design" (emphasis added, F.R. of U. S.: 244). It went on to outline an ambitious campaign of political and psychological measures by which to engage the USSR, economic boycotts, military responses to expected Soviet attacks and, quite incredibly, it nonchalantly discussed the advantages and costs of the US precipitating a nuclear World War (F.R. of U. S.: 281-282).
NSC 68 did not call to Truman's attention its new features, but masked them by suggesting continuity, saying "the policy of 'containment'...seeks by all means short of war" to both pursue Truman's defensive 1947 purposes and to "foster the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system... at least to the point of [the Kremlin] modifying its behavior to conform to generally accepted international norms." Critical in this aggressive anti-Soviet campaign would be strength: "it was and continues to be cardinal in this policy that we possess superior overall power" (F.R. of U. S.: 253, 255). Though the NSC itself presented massive evidence that the US then possessed that superior strength (and had "marked atomic superiority," FRofUS: 287), they nevertheless found it "clear that a substantial and rapid building up of strength" was needed (F.R. of U. S.: 283) in order "to check and roll back the Kremlin's drive for world domination" (F.R. of U. S.: 284). The six to seven percent of US GNP then being used for US defense was thought inadequate: NSC 68 spoke of an increase to 20% of US GNP, or more. If today, with a US GDP of $10.17 Trillion (2001 figure from World Bank 2003: 239 --and GDP is a smaller figure than GNP), we were to devote such a percentage of our total economy to defense, the actual $265+ billion yearly US defense expenditure would need to be increased nearly six-fold, to an astonishing $2.0 trillion yearly!
NSC 68 clearly called on Truman to extend US objectives: "To roll back" communism fundamentally differed from policy "to contain" it. As the authors of NSC 68 put it, "the cold war is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake" (F.R. of U. S.: 292). A little over two months after it was written, "real war" began in Korea. On September 30, Pres. Truman ordered (May: 14) that NSC 68 be taken "as a statement of policy to be followed over the next four or five years... and that implementing programs ... be put into effect as rapidly as feasible." Within a short time defense spending was tripled. The document was declassified in 1975 (and is available online here).
"NSC 68," in Foreign Relations of the US, 1950, v. 1 (Washington: USGPO, 1977); link to declassified copy at the Truman Presidential Library (Independence, MO).
Ernest R. May, ed., American Cold War Strategy: Interpreting NSC 68 (Boston and NY: Bedford/St. Martins, 1993).
World Bank, Sustainable Development in a Dynamic World: World Development Report 2003 (Washington: World Bank/Oxford University Press, 2003).
return to Prof. Bowen's main webpage
return to PolS 128 United States Foreign Policy