Notes on NSC-68

Well here is the title page to one of the most famous (and controversial) documents of the Cold War, NSC-68, produced by the National Security Council in 1950 for President Truman as a kind of grand overview of suggested policy towards the Soviet Union and the communist world.  Image courtesy of The Truman Library.


The complete text of the document is available on the web at:

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The international situation in 1948-1949:

  • February 1948 Czech coup
  • June 1948 Berlin blockade began
  • August 1949 first successful Soviet test of a nuclear weapon
  • 1 October 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China
  • June 1950 start of the Korean War

On first glance, from an American perspective, these were not exactly good signs about the inherent weakness of the communist bloc, but what is not considered in reaching such a conclusion.  (a) There is no recognition of the extreme domestic, primarily economic, weakness of the Soviet Union as a result of the destruction of World War II (rationing only technically ended in 1947).  (b) There is no analysis of the specific domestic circumstances that led to the communist victory in China.

Anyway, US leadership felt that some sort of over-arching policy directive was needed to deal with the Soviet threat.  In the works of Paul Nitze, the chief author of NSC-68:

[In 1949], I was very much worried and so were some of my fellow workers by the fact that in the preceding year a number of adverse things had happened. One (cough) was the fact that the Russians had tested a nuclear device and therefore it was only a matter of time before our nuclear monopoly, on which we had been and were depending for our security, was going to be not a monopoly but a duopoly and maybe more, over time. And beyond that the scientists said that they had figured out a way in which you could make a thermonuclear weapon, and that was going to be at least a thousand times as powerful as the then known nuclear weapons and that the Russians were working on. We knew the Russians were working on that kind of thing, and were probably ahead of us in their work on a thermonuclear device, and it turned out later that they were ahead of us: they tested a thermonuclear device before we did. And then the situation in the Far East had deteriorated. The Chinese Communists had defeated the Chinese Nationalists and Chiang Kai-shek had retreated to Formosa. And what with the other disasters, there were a whole series of disasters, but that's enough for, to make the world seem different.

Reinforcing that justification for NSC-68,

At a National Security Council meeting on 31 January 1950, President Truman met with Defense Secretary Louis A. Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) David Lilienthal to discuss continuing the thermonuclear project. The surprise of the Soviet atomic bomb tests three months earlier greatly concerned Truman. The President was disturbed, too, about the deteriorating relationship between America and Russia. The string of problems arising from the Czechoslovakian coup and Berlin Blockade of 1948 caused a heightening of tension that resulted in the President's increasing turn toward a policy of "containment." The Communist success in China the year before, too, seemed to Truman a deepening of the rift. He was now determined to make a thorough review not only of America's loss of atomic monopoly, but also of its existing political military strategy.
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Let's look at some of the specific policy recommendations of the document:

  • Check the very first sentence, "The foregoing analysis indicates that the probable fission bomb capability and possible thermonuclear bomb capability of the Soviet Union have greatly intensified the Soviet threat to the security of the United States."
  • Then, two sentences later, "In particular, the United States now faces the contingency that within the next four or five years the Soviet Union will possess the military capability of delivering a surprise atomic attack of such weight that the United States must have substantially increased general air, ground, and sea strength, atomic capabilities, and air and civilian defenses to deter war and to provide reasonable assurance, in the event of war, that it could survive the initial blow and go on to the eventual attainment of its objectives."  (I am not sure on what sort of intelligence this assertion was based.  How was the Soviet Union going to invade the US?)
  • In other words, NSC-68 advocated a dramatic rollback of Soviet power:  "To reduce the power and influence of the USSR to limits which no longer constitute a threat to the peace, national independence, and stability of the world family of nations."
  • And a massive military buildup on the part of the US to achieve that rollback:  "It is imperative that this trend be reversed by a much more rapid and concerted build-up of the actual strength of both the United States and the other nations of the free world. The analysis shows that this will be costly and will involve significant domestic financial and economic adjustments."
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Now, consider:

  1. With regard to George Kennan, as I've already written a little about him and the domino theory and his policy of "containment."  It is clear to me that the document represented a fundamental shift in policy towards the Soviet Union away from the influence of Kennan and Chip Bohlen, the real Russian experts in the Department of State, to the National Security Council and more of an emphasis on military means of dealing with the Soviets (maybe "confrontation" instead of "containment").
    Kennan's influence on policy issues was rapidly declining under Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who had a far more "militaristic" view of the Soviet "threat." Acheson was especially concerned about the sequence of international events outlined above, and he was aware of public and congressional perceptions that the Truman administration had somehow "lost" China.  Kennan opposed Acheson on the building of hydrogen bomb, and once the Korean War had broken out, he spoke out against the idea of trying to reunite the Koreas by military means.  Further, "Kennan rejected the idea that Stalin had a grand design for world conquest implicit in Nitze's report, and argued that he actually feared overextending Russian power. Kennan even argued that NSC-68 should not have been drafted at all, as it would make U.S. policies too rigid, simplistic, and militaristic." (wikipedia)  In the end, Acheson overruled Kennan and Bohlen and supported the view of the Soviet menace presented in NSC-68.
  2. The document proposed an extremely expensive (and immediate) military buildup on the part of the US.  "The 1950 budget had allocated $13 billion for military spending--equal to one-third of the national budget and 5 percent of the gross national product (GNP). The 1951 budget, the first after NSC #68 went into effect, earmarked $60 billion for defense--about two-thirds of the national budget and more than 18 percent of a rising GNP.  (Ernest May, ed., American Cold War Strategy: Interpreting NSC-68 (Boston, 1994), p. vii)
  3. The policy prescriptions of NSC-68 did not last very long (although this might be open to debate):  This policy, however, was never really put into effect. To be sure, very important rearmament decisions were made in late 1950, but in practice the U.S. government never tried to do more than defend the status quo. This was not because key American leaders from the start rejected the basic NSC-68 philosophy; the document, in fact, reflected the fundamental thinking of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, the real maker of American policy during the late Truman period. Acheson, an "uncompromising hawk" as General Omar Bradley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman at the time, later called him, might have wanted to take a very tough line as soon as he had the means to do so. But the rearmament decisions of late 1950 could not transform the military balance overnight. It took two full years for the balance to be transformed, and by then it was too late for the lame-duck Truman administration to use its power the way Acheson would have liked.
  4. NSC-68 tended to over-extend the US and prevented the US from focusing on truly strategic issues.  (Why else get involved in Vietnam?)  "Whereas Kennan planned to confront Soviet power at strategic points, NSC #68 viewed Russian advances anywhere as threats to vital U.S. interests; any Communist "success" threatened American credibility and prestige. Finally, NSC #68 subordinated diplomacy to military imperatives, largely because the authors assumed that negotiations were futile. Paul Nitze, Kennan's successor and the document's primary author, described the Soviet-American struggle as an apocalyptic conflict between a "slave society" and a "free society" (May, pp. 27–28) upon which hinged the fate of Western civilization."
  5. Or did NSC-68 lead to US involvement in Korea?
  6. I think that it is pretty clear that Nitze, who actually wrote most of the NSC 68, thought it was the right course to proceed with the development of the hydrogen bomb and thus put in motion a nuclear arms race.
  7. Was it fear-mongering on the part of Dean Acheson?  NSC68 was fear-mongering at its highest peak, and some students of foreign policy learned this all too well for America and the world.  In NSC68 Nitze advised that superiority was the key to security, that the US pursue unbridled military research and development to stay ahead of any potential aggressor.  The lesson of World War II, he said, was that western weakness leads to aggression.... "The US must have the will and strength to be a force for peace," he wrote.
  8. These types of programmatic documents, whether it be in regards to domestic policy or international affairs, tend to be outdated and useless very quickly because new situations arise.  In the case of NSC-68, certainly the death of Stalin in March 1953 made the prescriptions out-of-date immediately.
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Other websites:

  • Truman and NSC-68. This is a good summary of historian John Lewis Gaddis's book Strategies of Containment with a very good section on "Truman and NSC-68"
  • Making Grand Strategy: The Early Cold War Experience in Retrospect by Marc Trachtenberg: "The common view that the NSC-68 strategy was a "strategy of containment"--that is, that it was essentially defensive and status quo-oriented in nature--is simply incorrect. The text of the document is unambiguous. The goal was rollback; the aim of the NSC-68 strategy was "to check and to roll back the Kremlin's drive for world domination." NSC-68 called explicitly for a "policy of calculated and gradual coercion." The aim was to force a "retraction" of Soviet power--to get the Soviets to "recede" by creating "situations of strength." This was why NSC-68 called for such a massive buildup of U.S. military power.

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