National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68) was a 58-paged top secret policy paper issued by the United States National Security Council on April 14, 1950, during the presidency of Harry S. Truman. It was one of the most significant statements of American policy in the Cold War. NSC-68 largely shaped U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War for the next 20 years, and involved a decision to make Containment against global Communist expansion a high priority.
The strategy outlined in NSC-68 arguably achieved ultimate victory with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent emergence of a "new world order" centered on American liberal-capitalist values alone. Truman officially approved NSC-68 on September 30, 1950. The secret text was declassified in 1975.
By 1950, events had reinforced the need for better coordination of national security policies: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was operational; military assistance for European allies had begun; the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb; and the Communists solidified their control in China. The United States Department of State seized the opportunity to review US strategic policy and military programs, overcoming opposition from Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson and his allies in the Bureau of the Budget. The Defense Department representatives on the committee initially resisted proposals that would exceed the existing $12.5 billion ceiling on defense spending.
The report, known as NSC-68, was requested by President Truman on 31 January 1950, following a feasibility study of both the US and the USSR acquiring thermonuclear weapons. He directed the secretaries of State and Defense "to undertake a reexamination of our objectives in peace and war and of the effect of these objectives on our strategic plans." The first report was submitted on 7 April, and then passed on to the NSC for further consideration.
NSC Study Group (Known)
- Paul Nitze, Chair
- John P. Davis
- Robert Tufts
- Robert Hooker
- Dean Acheson
- Chip Bohlen
- Major General Truman Landon, Joint Chiefs Representative
- Samuel S. Butano
- Robert Lovett, Deputy Secretary of Defense
Originally, President Truman did not support NSC-68 when it was brought to him in 1950. He believed that it was not specific about which programs would be affected or changed and it also didn't go well with his previous defense spending limits. Truman sent it back for further review until he finally approved it in 1951.
The document outlined the de facto national security strategy of the United States for that time (though it was not an official NSS in the form we know today) and analyzed the capabilities of the Soviet Union and of the United States of America from military, economic, political, and psychological standpoints.
The NSC-68 described the challenges facing the United States in cataclysmic terms. "The issues that face us are momentous," the document stated, "involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself."
Content and meaning
Although George F. Kennan's theory of containment articulated a multifaceted approach for U.S. foreign policy in response to the perceived Soviet threat, NSC-68 recommended policies that emphasized military over diplomatic action. Kennan's influential 1947 telegram advocated a policy of containment towards the Soviet Union. In NSC-68, it can be defined as "a policy of calculated and gradual coercion." That said, the NSC-68 called for significant peacetime military spending, in which the U.S. possessed "superior overall power" and "in dependable combination with other like-minded nations." It calls for a military capable of
- Defending the Western Hemisphere and essential allied areas in order that their war-making capabilities can be developed;
- Providing and protecting a mobilization base while the offensive forces required for victory were being built up;
- Conducting offensive operations to destroy vital elements of the Soviet war-making capacity, and to keep the enemy off balance until the full offensive strength of the United States and its allies can be brought to bear;
- Defending and maintaining the lines of communication and base areas necessary to the execution of the above tasks; and
- Providing such aid to allies as is essential to the execution of their role in the above tasks.
NSC-68 itself did not contain any specific cost estimates. The programs would cost a significant portion of U.S. GNP, perhaps as much as 20% or more by one estimate, at a time when the United States was committing six to seven percent of its GNP to defense. It was evident that the limits the President had previously set on defense spending would not be compatible with NSC-68.
NSC-68 required that the United States must increase defence spending to as much as $50 billion per year from the original $13 billion set for 1950. However the specific costs were left to subsequent groups in the NSC to analyze and budget.
Relation to U.S. foreign policy
"For several centuries, it had proved impossible for any one nation to gain such preponderant strength that a coalition of other nations could not in time face it with greater strength." —NCS-68, p. 4
Serving as the main point of the opening paragraph of NSC 68, this sentence is a reference to the U.S. leading the international community out of WWII (by way of ending the war in Japan). The 'one nation' is in reference to the Nazis, and the 'coalition of other nations' is in reference to the Allied nations during WWII.
The document continues to identify the Soviet Union's sphere of influence, if allowed to grow, would become such a powerful force, that no coalition of nations could band together, and oppose her. This is significant because firstly, the Soviet Union is identified in the document as the antithesis of the United States, and secondly, the Soviet Union is committed to extending its sphere of influence.
A thorough knowledge of this document is required in understanding U.S. foreign policymakers in the early Cold War. After reading this document, they rapidly recognized the need for militarization out of the interest of self-preservation. In other words, the aggressive nation of Soviet expansion required a strong response from the U.S. in order to prevent the destruction of America. This of course was phrased in a context of military exploits (referring to the military victory in WWI & WWII), and therefore emphasized military expansion.
Also crucial in understanding this document is the language. Indeed, primary sources must be read carefully, in order to recognize themes or motifs. Adjectives provide valuable insight into the motives of this document's authors, and the impression it had on its intended audience. An example is the description of the international situation, as provoked by the Soviet Union, as endemic. By using this language, its clear that the authors wished to portray the Soviet Union as sickness, and the U.S. as the cure. This message was received loud and clear, and dominated many foreign policy decisions throughout the Cold War.
NSC-68 drew some criticism from senior government officials who believed the Cold War was being escalated unnecessarily. When the report was sent to top officials in the Truman administration for review before its official delivery to the President, many of them scoffed at its arguments. Willard Thorp questioned its contention that the "USSR is steadily reducing the discrepancy between its overall economic strength and that of the United States." Thorp argued: "I do not feel that this position is demonstrated, but rather the reverse... The actual gap is widening in our favor." He pointed out that in 1949 the US economy had increased twofold over that of the Soviet Union. Steel production in the US outpaced the Soviet Union by 2 million tons, and stockpiling of goods and oil production far exceeded Soviet amounts. As for Soviet military investment, Thorp was skeptical that the USSR was committing such large portion of its GDP: "I suspect a larger portion of Soviet investment went into housing." William Schaub of the Bureau of the Budget was particularly harsh, believing that "in every arena," the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, the stockpiling of atomic bombs, the economy, the US was far superior than the Soviet Union. Kennan, although "father" of the containment policy, also disagreed with the document, particularly its call for massive rearmament (FRUS, 1950, Vol. I).
President Harry S. Truman, even after the Soviets became a nuclear power, sought to curb military spending. However, he did not reject the recommendations of NSC-68 out of hand, instead returning it to circulation and asking for an estimate of the costs involved. In the ensuing two months, little progress was made on the report. By June, Nitze had practically given up on it. But on June 25, 1950, North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel north. With the Korean War begun, NSC-68 took on new importance. As Acheson later remarked: "Korea... created the stimulus which made action."
The Truman Administration began a nationwide public relations campaign to convince Congress and opinion setters of the need for strategic rearmament and containment of Soviet communism. It had to overcome isolationists, including Senator Robert A. Taft, who wanted less world involvement, as well as intense anti-Communists such as James Burnham who proposed an alternative strategy of rollback that would eliminate Communism or perhaps launch a preemptive war. The State Department and the White House used the North Korean attack of June 1950 and the see-saw battles during the first few months of the Korean War to steer congressional and public opinion toward a course of rearmament between the two poles of preventive war and isolationism.
NSC-68 is a source of much historical debate as is the escalation of the Cold War. NSC-68 was an important part of an overall shift in American foreign policy to a comprehensive containment strategy that was confirmed by successive administrations. Analyses ranges from Michael Hogan's belief that NSC-68 portrayed the threat "in the worst light possible" to providing an accurate picture of a genuine and growing threat.
This document is critical to understanding the Cold War with its effect on similar national security documents such as the National Security Strategy March 2005, but also provides insight to current US foreign policy. Although the proposal was initially refused, implementation of NSC-68 shows the extent to which it marked a 'shift' in US policy — not only toward the USSR, but toward all communist governments. By signing the document, Truman provided a clearly defined and coherent US policy that did not really exist previously. Furthermore, it can be argued that NSC-68, as proposed by the NSC, addressed Truman's problem of being attacked from the American right following the "red scare" and Alger Hiss case. Although not made public, NSC-68 was manifested in subsequent increases in America's conventional and nuclear capabilities, thereby adding to the country's financial burden. While NSC-68 did not make any specific recommendations regarding the proposed increase in defense expenditures, the Truman Administration almost tripled defense spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product between 1950 and 1953 (from 5 to 14.2 percent).
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