The first Committee on the Present Danger was founded in 1950, shortly after the Korean War began, to campaign for the permanent expansion of U.S. military forces, capabilities, and commitments, especially the deployment of far more substantial U.S. troop contingents in Western Europe to strengthen the infant North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Similar prescriptions had been made earlier that year in the National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68), a paper prepared by the Policy Planning Staff (PPS) and largely authored by the second PPS director, Paul H. Nitze. President Harry S. Truman initially rejected its recommendations, which effectively called for a major militarization of the existing policies of containment of the Soviet Union, but accepted most of them once the Korean War erupted in June 1950. Even before the war began, several State and Defense Department officials and consultants who supported NSC-68 hoped to establish a citizens committee to press for major increases in American defense budgets and commitments.
Headed by James B. Conant, president of Harvard University, and largely run by former army undersecretary Tracy S. Voorhees, the committee, although formally a private organization, received strong backing and assistance from leading Truman administration officials, including Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Undersecretary of Defense Robert A. Lovett as well as Nitze. Established in December 1950 after extensive preliminary discussions with administration officials, the committee compared the Soviet menace to the Nazi threat a decade earlier and pressed for the restoration of the military draft, doubling the size of the existing U.S. military, and the deployment of several additional divisions to Western Europe. The committee quickly attracted an array of prominent members, including several college presidents, lawyers, media figures—among them Edward R. Murrow of CBS, Julius Ochs Adler of the New York Times, and Screen Actors Guild President Ronald Reagan—and William J. Donovan, former director of the Office of Strategic Services.
The committee worked closely with Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials and with the Psychological Strategy Board (PSB) established by Truman in the spring of 1951 to coordinate efforts to win the loyalties of peoples in Soviet-controlled states, especially in Eastern Europe. Committee members campaigned energetically for the policies they favored, speaking and writing extensively, sponsoring films, disseminating cartoons and other publicity, briefing journalists, lobbying congressmen, and writing detailed policy recommendations and briefs for sympathetic administration officials.
The committee's efforts contributed significantly to the Great Debate of 1951 on U.S. foreign policy, the outcome of which decisively oriented the country away from isolationism and toward a militarily assertive position of high defense expenditures, large armed forces, and major overseas alliance commitments. Leading committee officials, including Voorhees, successfully urged the sympathetic General Dwight D. Eisenhower to seek the Republican Party nomination for president in 1952, in the hope that this would check the influence of Republican isolationists and wed that party, like the Democrats, to the militarized internationalism that the committee favored. After Eisenhower's election victory in November 1952 and the Korean War armistice the following summer, the committee members felt that its mission had been accomplished, and by late 1953 it had effectively faded away.
The first committee subsequently served as a model for the second Committee on the Present Danger, founded in the mid-1970s by foreign policy experts—including academics, former officials, and opinion makers—who argued that an expansionist Soviet Union was increasing the size, composition, and capabilities of its military arsenal in spite of arms control agreements and a general warming of superpower relations, known as détente. Committee members feared that the Soviets were preparing to wage—and prevail in—a nuclear exchange with the United States, thus giving the Soviet Union enormous leverage in any future confrontation with America or its allies. The committee favored the development of new American weapons and opposed arms control agreements, which it believed bolstered Soviet military dominance. In 1981, when Reagan (an early member of the committee) became president, many of the committee's positions became official government policy.
Veteran U.S. foreign policy advisor and NSC-68 drafter Nitze and Yale Law School Dean Eugene V. Rostow, formerly an undersecretary of state for President Lyndon B. Johnson, conceptualized the organization in late 1975. While they were finalizing plans the following year, Nitze and several other like-minded foreign policy experts were asked to scrutinize the government's recent assessment of the Soviet Union. They ultimately concluded that the United States was systematically underestimating Soviet military capabilities. These findings further spurred the committee's organizational efforts. Eventually, political scientist and future United Nations (UN) ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, congressional aide Max Kampelman, labor leader Lane Kirkland, and novelist Saul Bellow joined Rostow, Nitze, and 142 others as founding members of the Committee on the Present Danger.
Although the foreign and defense policies of Republican President Gerald R. Ford and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger were the committee's main focus during its formative stages, organizers believed that their efforts were necessary regardless of who won the 1976 national election. Thus, two days after Ford was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter, the committee formally announced its establishment. Over the next several years, the group undertook a high-profile campaign, including disseminating analytical studies, conducting public opinion polling, and offering congressional testimony in support of new nuclear weapons and greater skepticism of détente. The committee vigorously opposed Carter's effort to conclude a Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the Soviet Union.
Critics of the committee believed that it was misreading Soviet military developments and foreign policy goals. To these observers, changes in the Soviets' arsenal could be explained benignly as defensive in nature or dismissed as a logical reaction to American actions. They believed that the committee's antagonism toward the Soviet Union and advocacy of new weapons reflected discredited past approaches and only increased the likelihood of a dangerous superpower confrontation. The committee's critique of American policy did not waver, however, and many of its suggestions were implemented by the Reagan administration, particularly during 1981–1985.
Christopher John Bright and Priscilla Roberts
Hershberg, James G. James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age. New York: Knopf, 1993.; Sanders, Jerry Wayne. Peddlers of Crisis: The Committee on the Present Danger and the Politics of Containment. Boston: South End Press, 1983.; Tyroler, Charles, II. Alerting America: The Papers of the Committee on the Present Danger. Washington, DC: Pergamon-Brassey's, 1984.