Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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National Security Council Report NSC-68

NSC-68 was a response by President Harry S. Truman's administration to the Soviets' first atomic explosion in late August 1949 as well as the October 1949 communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. The top secret report was released to the president on 14 April 1950. Its principal architect was Paul H. Nitze, director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff.

The basic premise of NSC-68 was that since the Soviets had developed a workable atomic bomb, a hydrogen (thermonuclear) bomb would not be far behind. The drafters of NSC-68 estimated that by 1954, "the year of maximum danger," the Soviets would be capable of launching a crippling preemptive strike against the United States. According to NSC-68, the United States could not prevent such a blow without a massive increase in its military and economic capacities. Should the report not be heeded, in case of Soviet aggression the United States would be forced into appeasement or nuclear war. Nitze and other policymakers believed, therefore, that the key to avoiding this dilemma and preserving free-world security lay in a vast conventional rearmament. NSC-68 also demanded greater foreign aid, however, along with expanded military assistance to the Western Allies, additional funding for information and propaganda campaigns, better intelligence gathering, and an expansion of nuclear weapons programs.

Alarmed by the report's recommendations and likely costs, President Truman initially shelved the plan. Only after the sudden outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 did he agree to implement the NSC-68 rearmament program. Thanks in part, at least, to the Korean War, U.S. defense expenditures quadrupled, going from $13.5 billion before the war to more than $54 billion by the time Truman left office in January 1953. The lion's share of this massive rearmament program in fact was not directed to the Korean War but instead went toward fulfilling America's long-term mobilization base as envisioned in NSC-68. Indeed, NSC-68 put muscle into Truman's containment policy.

Although subsequent administrations would tinker with the recommendations in NSC-68, the report nonetheless guided U.S. national security and military mobilization planning for almost a generation after its drafting. Fundamentally, NSC-68 was underpinned by the traditional Cold War mentality. Many of its critics have argued that the report overstated the nature and extent of the Soviet threat. Some, however, have maintained that NSC-68 was a wise and prudent response to a real and present Soviet danger. Still others have pointed out that although NSC-68 may have painted a somewhat distorted picture of the Soviet Union, this distortion results more from what is now known from newly opened Eastern bloc archives as opposed to what was known to officials at the time. Whatever the case, it is a truism that NSC-68 was a seminal and paradigmatic Cold War document.

Josh Ushay


Further Reading
Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.; Leffler, Melvyn P. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.; May, Ernest R. American Cold War Strategy: Interpreting NSC 68. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's, 1993.; Pierpaoli, Paul G., Jr. Truman and Korea: The Political Culture of the Early Cold War. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1999.
 

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