NSC-68 (1950) was a top secret document prepared by the National Security Council and approved by President Harry S. Truman in 1950 that laid out the basic strategy to oppose the Soviet Union in fighting the Cold War. It called for tripling the defense budget, and the globalization and militarization of containment policy whereby the U.S. and its NATO allies would respond militarily to actual Soviet expansion.
The document warned:
- 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.
Officially titles "SC 68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security," it was sent to Truman in mid-April, two months before the North Koreans invaded the south to start the Korean War. NSC-68 seemed confirmed by the invasion and led Truman to order the containment policy to take effect, with American troops sent to Korea. With the war underway, support inside the administration for the new policy was overwhelming, shutting out the critics who said it was unnecessary or too expensive. The document was drafted by Paul Nitze, who consulted State and Defense officials; it was formally approved by President Truman as official national strategy. It called for partial mobilization of the U.S. economy to build armaments faster than the Soviets. The assumption was the takeover of China, invasion of South Korea and threats to Vietnam demonstrated a drive for world dominance by the Soviet Union and its Communist allies. A three-part response was needed to strengthen Europe; weaken the Soviet Union economically; and to strengthen the United States both militarily and economically. The NSC-68 economic strategy was a tripling in U.S. military spending to be maintained as long as necessary. The short-term effect would be to greatly strengthen U.S. military capabilities and force the Soviets to strain its weaker resource base in order to follow suit. NSC-68 predicted the Soviet Union would soon fall behind the United States in military preparedness, because its output capacity was half or less that of the United States. The United States was sure to win the armaments race because of its greater ability to produce.
The Truman Administration before 1950 had focused on budget cutting and sharply reduced military spending. NSC-68 rejected the cost-cutting approach which limited defense expenditures to under $15 billion dollars annually. Reflecting the views of senior State Department officials, especially Nitze and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, it portrayed a well-armed Soviet Union bent on world domination, and argued that only a substantial increase in American military capabilities could save the West from conquest or subservience. The report called for a rearmament balanced between nuclear and conventional forces, and rejected the extreme reliance on strategic air power of previous years as unsuitable, for the American monopoly on nuclear weapons (called at the time the "atomic bomb") had ended in 1949. NSC-68 also rejected the prevailing notion that there were inherent limits on the amount of federal spending that the economy could tolerate, and called for a more aggressive approach to the cold war. The report was under consideration when the outbreak of the Korean War moved public opinion to strong support of whatever additional spending was needed. Defense spending soared from 3.0% of GNP in 1950 to 5.1% in 1952 (when the Korean War was in full swing), to 11.1% in 1954, when the war was over but the buildup was in full operation.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower became president in 1953, and thought the NSC-68 program was too expensive, and feared that a too-large federal budget would create long-term economic weaknesses that would undermine American military capability. His "New Look" approach cut the overall budget and shifted reliance away from expensive Army divisions to less expensive bombers and (later) ICBM missiles. Eisenhower did, however, step up the covert operations of the CIA and sponsored psychological and cultural warfare against Communism.
The Truman Administration began a major publicity campaign to convince Congress and public opinion to support strategic rearmament and containment of the spread of Soviet communism. It had to overcome isolationists who wanted less world involvement, as well as intense anti-Communists who talked about rolling back Communism or starting a preemptive war. The State Department and the White House used the North Korean attack of June 1950 and events 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.
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- Combs, Jerald A. "The Compromise That Never Was: George Kennan, Paul Nitze, and the Issue of Conventional Deterrence in Europe, 1949-1952," Diplomatic History, v. 15, No. 3 (Summer 1991), pp. 347-382:
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- Dockrill, Saki. "Dealing with Soviet Power and Influence: Eisenhower's Management of U.S. National Security." Diplomatic History 2000 24(2): 345-352. Issn: 0145-2096 Fulltext: Ebsco
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Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
- Hamby, Alonzo. Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (1998) excerpt and text search
- Hammond, Paul Y. "NSC-68: Prologue to Rearmament," in Walter Schilling et al. eds. Strategy, Politics and Defence Budgets (1962), pp. 274-326
- Heuser, Beatrice. "NSC-68 and the Soviet Threat: A New Perspective on Western Threat Perception and Policy Making," Review of International Studies, 17, No. 1 (January 1991), pp. 17-40; rejects notion that US misperceived and overreacted to Stalin's worldwide intentions; she instead says that events after World War II in the Balkans and Korea demonstrate a legitimate basis for NSC 68 and the resulting military buildup.
- May, Ernest R., ed. American Cold War Strategy: Interpreting NSC 68 (1993), with complete text of NSC-68
- Nitze, Paul. "The Development of NSC-68," International Security, v.4, No. 4 (Spring 1980), pp. 170-176 in JSTOR
- Ohanian, Lee E. "The Macroeconomic Effects of War Finance in the United States: World War II and the Korean War" American Economic Review. 87#1 (1997) pp 23-40 in JSTOR
- Pierpaoli, Paul G. Truman and Korea: The Political Culture of the Early Cold War (1999) online edition
- Rosenberg, David Alan. "The Origins of Overkill. Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy, 1945-1960," International Security, v. 7, No. 4 (Spring 1983), pp. 3-72;
- Wells, Jr., Samuel F. "Sounding the Tocsin: NSC 68 and the Soviet Threat" International Security, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Autumn, 1979), pp. 116-158 [http://www.jstor.org/stable/2626746
- "A Report to the National Security Council - NSC 68", April 12, 1950. President's Secretary's File, Truman Library.
- See "Conclusion"
- see full text online; see also http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/coldwar/documents/sectioned.php?documentid=10-1&pagenumber=1&groupid=1 Truman's copy]
- May (1993)
- Saki Dockrill, "Dealing with Soviet Power and Influence: Eisenhower's Management of U.S. National Security." Diplomatic History 2000 24(2): 345-352. Issn: 0145-2096 Fulltext: Ebsco
- * Casey, Steven. "Selling NSC-68: The Truman Administration, Public Opinion, and the Politics of Mobilization, 1950-51." Diplomatic History 2005 29(4): 655-690. Issn: 0145-2096 Fulltext: Ebsco