National Security Council Paper NSC-68 is a 58-page document with the bland and ambiguous title United States Objectives and Programs for National Security. Although it sounds like a GAO report, this is no ordinary memorandum. Delivered to President Harry Truman on 14 April 1950, NSC-68 helps define America’s position at the dawn of the Cold War—an era of Soviet expansion, proxy conflicts, and atomic weapons.
The United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were major collaborators in World War II, but both lived at the extreme ends of ideology. With each surge into Eastern Europe, the Soviets established new territory governed or manipulated by Communist mechanisms. Those military and political endeavors caused friction with the Western world. Any dispute in the coming years would gravitate toward a battle of ideas.
More disturbing was the thought that ideologies could be fought for with atomic bombs. Tapped to complete NSC-68, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff permitted a dangerous sentence to hang off a paragraph in the analysis section: “With the development of increasingly terrifying weapons of mass destruction, every individual faces the ever-present possibility of annihilation should the conflict enter the phase of total war.”
To the authors of this memorandum, force was “a last resort for a free society.” They declared that a military confrontation with the Soviet Union might not settle things in a decisive way:
But if war comes, what is the role of force? Unless we so use it that the Russian people can perceive that our effort is directed against the regime and its power for aggression, and not against their own interests, we will unite the regime and the people in the kind of last ditch fight in which no underlying problems are solved, new ones are created, and where our basic principles are obscured and compromised. If we do not in the application of force demonstrate the nature of our objectives we will, in fact, have compromised from the outset our fundamental purpose. In the words of the Federalist (No. 28) “The means to be employed must be proportioned to the extent of the mischief.” The mischief may be a global war or it may be a Soviet campaign for limited objectives. In either case we should take no avoidable initiative which would cause it to become a war of annihilation, and if we have the forces to defeat a Soviet drive for limited objectives it may well be to our interest not to let it become a global war.
President Truman was offered four options in light of U.S. and Soviet capabilities: (a) that America continue its present policies, (b) that America return to its habits of isolationism, (c) that America goes to war, or (d) that America prepare herself and her allies for the war that would hopefully never come. The latter became the country’s next course of action: “A more rapid building up of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world than provided under [a continuation of current policies], with the purpose of reaching, if possible, a tolerable state of order among nations without war and of preparing to defend ourselves in the event that the free world is attacked.”
In a sense, NSC-68 was one of the first intellectual weapons to fight the Cold War. In the decades to come, U.S. leaders would tackle a complicated world of military posturing, industrial buildup, economic influence, proxy wars, and diplomatic sparring. Relations would eventually constitute “a tolerable state of order”, but both powers would share intolerable encounters. Perhaps this document was also meant to warn leaders about making decisions that directly affected their destiny. After all, if atomic weapons had changed the world, then the Cold War would change the future.
The Federation of American Scientists: http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsc-hst/nsc-68-4.htm
U.S. Department of State: http://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/NSC68
The History Channel: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/president-truman-receives-nsc-68
Photo credit: U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian