National Security Council Paper Number 68 (NSC #68), a policy directive signed by President Harry S. Truman in September 1950, initiated a militarized, global concept of U.S. Cold War containment strategy against the Soviet Union. It called for a full mobilization of the U.S. economy during peacetime—an unprecedented measure that created an immense military-industrial segment of the economy. As such, NSC #68 had profound implications for American foreign policy and the nation's society and culture.
NSC #68 fundamentally altered the containment theory conceived by diplomat George F. Kennan. In 1947, in an article published in Foreign Affairs titled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," Kennan had argued that the United States should pursue a policy in which Soviet moves were "contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force." Proceeding from the assumption that America had limited resources with which to wage such a policy, Kennan prioritized the areas of vital U.S. interests—Western Europe, Germany, and Japan—and argued that outside these select areas the nation should not over-commit itself. Kennan intended political and economic measures to be containment's primary instruments; military force would be used sparingly. As a Soviet expert, he also judged Kremlin leaders to be cautious opportunists, motivated less by Marxist ideology than by Russian security interests. Kennan left the State Department's policy planning staff in early 1950, when his approach toward the Soviet Union conflicted with that of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who preferred to counter Moscow by boosting U.S. military strength.
Drafted in the spring of 1950, NSC #68 inverted Kennan's principal conclusions. The document judged U.S. military readiness to be inadequate and called for a massive military buildup of conventional and nuclear arms for the purpose of "the frustration of the Kremlin design" (May, p. 54), which it assumed to be aggressive, bent on world supremacy, and devoted to undermining American power. The authors, without dwelling on the price tag, insisted that full wartime economic mobilization was necessary to deter a Soviet offensive in Western Europe, which they believed could occur as early as 1954. 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. "No other value system is so wholly irreconcilable with ours," NSC #68 continued, "so implacable in its purposes to destroy ours, so capable of turning to its own uses the most dangerous and divisive trends in our own society, no other so skillfully and powerfully evokes the elements of irrationality in human nature everywhere, and no other has the support of a great and growing center of military power" (May, p. 29).
Events of the period seemed to confirm NSC #68's dire predictions. In addition to the fear of a Soviet conventional invasion in Western Europe, NSC #68's authors viewed with apprehension communist gains in 1949, particularly Russia's achievement of the atomic bomb and the creation of the People's Republic of China. President Harry S. Truman reviewed the document in April 1950 but was not initially inclined to boost military spending. The North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, occurred as the document was being debated in administration circles. U.S. military intervention on the Korean peninsula and concerns over the war's drain on U.S. resources for Western Europe created the climate necessary for presidential approval and implementation later that September.
NSC #68 raised defense spending immediately. 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 (May, p. vii).
NSC #68 was an important Cold War document because it presented a world view of that conflict, which engaged U.S. society for nearly forty years. It portrayed a world polarized by an epic struggle between two ideologies, in which the outcome could only be victory or defeat. It provided the rationale for rearming the United States after World War II. Thus it spurred an arms race and the creation of the military-industrial complex of defense contractors, military technology corporations, and research laboratories that depended on trillions of federal dollars to augment the nation's arsenal. Although actual war with the Soviet Union never occurred, NSC #68 helped put the United States on a war footing for generations, thereby contributing to the shaping of American society and culture during the second half of the twentieth century.
Kennan, George F. "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." Foreign Affairs 25 (July 1947): 566–582.
May, Ernest R., ed. American Cold War Strategy: Interpreting NSC-68. Boston: St. Martin's, 1994.