In later years, NSC-68 would be held up by revisionist historians as the inevitable extension of the Truman Doctrine and a blueprint for disaster, responsible for the next two decades of East-West tension and the Vietnam War itself. —Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas in The Wise Men (1986)
NSC-68 was a secret policy paper adopted in 1950 during the Korean War that justified a massive expansion of military spending. It was the next step after the Truman Doctrine and NATO in the militarization of American foreign policy. A supposed worldwide threat from the Soviet Union was the justification for NSC-68.
NSC-68 was not declassified until 1975. Had the general public heard of it and Congress reviewed it, America’s post–World War II foreign policy might have been very different. Cold War critics would have had a much better case.
NSC-68 led to the tripling of the U.S. defense budget over a period of a few years, from some $12 billion to $50 billion during the Korean War. Like the Truman Doctrine, NSC-68 contained some questionable assertions about the strength and goals of the Soviets as well as their supposed allies. Semi-war, the concept of permanent war discussed earlier in this series, is a concept that is embodied in NSC-68.
Its primary author was a cold warrior, Paul Nitze. He would serve both Democratic and Republican presidents into the 1980s. He was unlike George Kennan, the foreign-policy star of the early Truman administration who later fell out of favor because of his doubts about interventionist policies: Kennan wanted a minimum of military force in U.S. foreign policy, while Nitze was a hawk.
Nitze had been a banker. And unlike others on Wall Street, he liked Franklin Roosevelt. Indeed, he became a supporter of Roosevelt’s defense buildup in the late 1930s. He believed that increased defense spending could pull the country out of the Depression that the New Deal never overcame.
Nitze was a Republican who was happy to serve Democratic administrations. He also thought the ideas of the national security state could be sold to labor unions as well as to the Right wing.
Possibly his most controversial idea was that thermonuclear war was winnable. He believed that the “best way to avoid a nuclear clash was to prepare to win one,” wrote Nicholas Thompson in The Hawk and the Dove.
A little-known document
NSC-68, the 68th policy paper of the National Security Council and formally entitled “United States Objectives for National Security,” is little known. Yet NSC-68 posited that the Soviets were madmen who led a worldwide movement dedicated to destroying America. Historian William Taubman called NSC-68’s tone “chilling.”
“The issues that face us are momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this republic but of civilization itself,” stated NSC-68. The Soviet Union, it said, sought to “impose its absolute will over the rest of the world.”
If that were true, then the only choice for the United States after World War II was to prepare for World War III. Indeed, Charles “Chip” Bohlen, a veteran State Department official, said the paper’s logic “leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable.” War, at that time, would have meant a nuclear conflict because the Soviets had just developed the A-bomb.
This critical NSC paper was a continuation and expansion of the 1947 commitment to the Truman Doctrine. It called for supporting “free peoples who are resisting outside subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
Today Americans might ask how their nation became an empire. How did their country end up involved in almost every war or possible war on the planet?
The mindset of this controversial paper is one reason why. Its worldview is a rationale for how the United States could expand its interventionist policies around the world. “NSC-68 proved to be a blueprint for waging the Cold War,” wrote historian Walter LaFeber in The American Age.
It also represented a remarkable foreign-policy change. The United States, which had once spurned permanent military alliances and huge peacetime military establishments that could draw the nation into war, now adopted a policy of endless enemies. That’s because the policy identified numerous countries that seemed to be allied with the Soviets.
But what did others in government think of NSC-68? How do historians today view it?
Numerous histories and biographies of the Cold War era ignore NSC-68 or hardly mention it. For example, Ronald Radosh’s Prophets on the Right, an excellent book that examines those who opposed the garrison state, has little on NSC-68. For a quarter of a century there was no great debate over it. Truman left NSC-68 out of his memoirs.
A secret foreign policy
Critics reviewing the policies of the Truman administration were at a disadvantage. A big part of the policy was secrecy. Many of them knew nothing about NSC-68 (They also knew nothing of presidential counselor Clark Clifford’s controversial study of Soviet intentions, which we examined in a previous segment. That was a report “so hot” that Truman insisted that all copies of it be locked up.)
Even one of the Old Right isolationist critics of interventionist foreign policies, Sen. Robert Taft, seemed to have known nothing about NSC-68. One is unable to find any reference to it in James T. Patterson’s exhaustive biography of Taft, Mr. Republican.f
Prof. John Moser, a Taft scholar at Ashland University, responding to an emailed message in which I inquired about Taft’s view of NSC-68, replied, “I doubt he [Taft] ever knew anything about it.”
Indeed, Secretary of State Dean Acheson didn’t want NSC-68 disclosed. Why? In part because people might start asking about how much this save-the-world policy would cost.
“He [Acheson] wanted to keep the document classified for distribution only to those with top-secret classification and he wanted to leave out any mention of cost altogether,” according to the book The Wise Men.
NSC-68 was the beginning of a long series of foreign-policy decisions, secret and overt, in which Congress had no say in some cases because it didn’t know what was going on. Sometimes it did know, but was ignored. An example of the latter occurred when Truman sent troops to Korea without congressional approval. Later John Kennedy would send the first U.S. troops into Vietnam without congressional debate.
Congress, in these undeclared wars, was sometimes informed after the fact, leading to debates that were pointless. That’s because actions had been taken and would not be reversed unless Congress insisted on cutting off funding for ongoing military operations. That’s something that would inevitably lead to accusations that Congress was “unpatriotic” or “didn’t support our boys” in Vietnam (Korea, Iraq, et cetera). And how many members of Congress could survive that criticism?
There was no contemporary criticism of NSC-68 because it wasn’t publicly debated. And even in Arthur Schlesinger’s much-celebrated 1970s book, The Imperial Presidency, NSC-68 is never mentioned. He did, however, note that numerous documents were classified and complained about “the shackled historian.”
Yet some Americans, with an awareness of how their country departed from its isolationist traditions, objected to where Truman was taking the country. The NSC-68 mindset of an America ready to confront the world — of a militarized nation with great-power responsibilities almost everywhere, acting as the world’s policeman — has not changed.
An expensive foreign policy
However, as the policy of the Cold War and intervention was conceived in the 1940s, there were some dissenters in the Truman administration. Some opposed it on philosophic grounds. Others couldn’t abide a huge military buildup when the United States was at peace. The Korean War broke out a few months after NSC-68 was written in the spring of 1950. The war ended the internal NSC-68 debate and the document was approved by Truman.
NSC-68 launched the United States on what amounted to a world crusade.
“The Soviet Union,” according to NSC-68, “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.”
NSC-68 said the Soviets sought “the complete subversion or forcible destruction of the machinery of government and structure of society in the countries of the non-Soviet world and their replacement by an apparatus and structure subservient to and controlled from Moscow.”
Here was practically a religious rationale for fighting communism everywhere. Indeed, Truman, in his memoirs, complained that “the international Communist movement was fanatical. It denies the existence of God and wherever it can it stomps on the worship of God.” That statement was sometimes true and sometimes not, depending on the communists.
The problem with that idea was that it now placed the United States in the role of God’s avenging angel, wrote historian Walter McDougall in Promised Land, Crusader State.
McDougall noted that presidents such as Wilson and McKinley had also justified some of their imperial policies by saying that “God has brought us to our present position of power and strength for some great purpose.”
But that thinking had led to foreign-policy disasters: the United States beating down the Philippine independence movement after the Spanish-American War — a dirty war widely criticized at the time by the Anti-Imperialist League, whose ranks included Mark Twain — and intervening in the Russian Civil War after World War I.
The United States, according to NSC-68, was the Soviets’ principal adversary. It was also the only nation capable of thwarting a Kremlin design for world domination. “This fact,” it said, “imposes on us in our own interests, the responsibility for world leadership.” And it would be an expensive responsibility in many ways, as Americans would learn in myriad wars.
The administration ultimately used the Korean War and NSC-68 as reasons for tripling the defense budget. But other costs, such as the costs of sending more troops to Europe and elsewhere, were also driving up spending. This huge defense spending would have an adverse long-term effect on the United States, as it has in the case of other empires, as explained in Paul Kennedy’s book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.
The NSC-68 worldview would cause the United States to be less competitive with countries that didn’t spend so much on defense. It would lead to a dollar crisis that would eventually result, in the early 1970s, in Richard Nixon’s breaking the last link of the dollar to gold.
That meant that American governments were free to inflate, or debase, the currency as much as they wanted. Most did. That’s because it was expensive to pay for the permanent warfare state of NSC-68 as well as for a huge welfare state.
But there were objectors to NSC-68. Even some of the important American policymakers, some who had helped formulate the containment idea, believed NSC-68 was flawed, as we will see in our next segment.
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom (previously called Freedom Daily).