George Kennan, the author of the containment doctrine, the doctrine that had set the United States on the path to an interventionist foreign policy, was alarmed by 1950.
He was “dead set” against NSC-68, according to the authors of The Wise Men. NSC-68 was the National Security Council policy paper that justified a permanent warfare state. It provided a worldview that demonized the Soviets. And the NSC-68 mindset led to an emphasis on military instead of diplomatic solutions, Kennan believed.
Kennan also “did not believe there was a need for a massive military buildup or a military alliance such as NATO. And he did not believe that the Soviets would attack the United States “unless provoked,” according to The Wise Men.
Throughout NSC-68 one finds the rationale for the next 60 years of foreign policy. There are fore-shadowings of George W. Bush’s “you’re either with us or against us” idea. Eventually, NSC-68 would also lead to the neo-conservative idea of preemptive war, the concept used to justify wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“America will not wait to be attacked again,” Bush said in a famous speech at West Point. “[We] will confront threats before they fully materialize; we will stay on the offense against the terrorists, fighting them abroad so we do not have to face them here at home.” Here was the apotheosis of the permanent warfare state and the concept of semi-war. Here was the theme of NSC-68.
NSC-68’s influence was also evident after Truman left the White House in 1953. In the 1950s Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, championed a dangerous policy of brinkmanship, threatening nuclear war to achieve American goals.
It was a frightening strategy in which the world could have easily slipped into a nuclear war in a Guns of August scenario (described in a book by Barbara Tuchman): the great powers in 1914 blundered into a war that was a tragedy for both the victors and losers. The miscalculations of two regional powers, Austria and Serbia, drew in other nations, resulting not in a limited, regional war but in a world war. Dulles viewed neutralism as “ill-moral,” as we will see in a later segment.
But that was a view that ignores history — American history. Previously, America had been neutral through much of its history when isolationism was a mainstream idea. But to exert American leadership, NSC-68 warned, the United States would have to match the Soviets tank for tank, plane for plane, and atomic bomb for atomic bomb.
Among the NSC-68 dissenters were Kennan and former Moscow embassy counselor Charles “Chip” Bohlen. He would later become ambassador to Moscow in the Eisenhower administration. Kennan and Bohlen believed the military aspects of their recommendations to limit Soviet aggression in Europe had been distorted. They also contended that NSC-68, written in secrecy to justify an enormous military buildup, represented an open-ended military commitment to opposing the Soviets and their supposed allies around the world.
Also standing in the way of NSC-68 was Defense Secretary Louis Johnson, a lawyer whose fundraising efforts had helped save Truman’s reelection campaign in 1948. As defense secretary in 1949 and 1950, he had tried to pursue a traditional postwar defense policy. He sought ways to reduce military spending. NSC-68 reversed that policy.
Johnson, referring to NSC-68, was “insulted by this outrageous thing,” writes Keith McFarland in Louis Johnson and the Arming of America. The program of NSC-68 was in essence a fundamental rejection of Johnson’s policies and what remained of the American anti-militarist tradition. Johnson was fired. Dean Acheson, in his memoirs, Present at the Creation, would suggest that Johnson suffered from a mental disorder.
Yet years later, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who would oppose U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, said, “Louis Johnson was the last defense secretary who fought the military-industrial complex.”
The military-industrial complex was in part the result of NSC-68. Henry Kissinger also said that NSC-68 was “based on a flawed premise,” as quoted in the book Peddlers of Crisis, by Jerry W. Sanders. The most important error was NSC-68’s one-great-evil worldview. It argued that the Soviet Union, led by a madman, had the capacity and the will to take over the world and was targeting the United States.
The main ideas of NSC-68
Most people have never heard of NSC-68, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t profoundly affected them. Indeed, historian Walter LaFeber, writing in The American Age years after the fall of the Soviet Union, said of NSC-68 that it was “still the fundamental paper that governs American foreign policy.”
But the isolationists of the 1930s and the 1940s had predicted some of what would happen if the United States turned its back on its history and adopted an interventionist system. It would result, they said, in the regimentation of American life, the imposition of a dictatorship, ruinous deficit spending, and radical domestic change. Whatever the benefits of intervention abroad, the isolationists said, they would be outweighed by the loss of civil liberties at home.
NSC-68 also helped to make anti-communism, like terrorism today, a policy that trumped every other foreign- or domestic- policy consideration. Sixty years after its creation, it remains a watershed. It was a rationale for a permanent war state, for as long as in some way or form a potential enemy could be linked to the Soviet Union, which like terrorists today was assumed to be uniquely dangerous. That potential threat could be used as a reason for almost every military action.
Another controversial idea of NSC-68 was that the united communist movement was led by the Soviet Union. The authors of NSC-68 believed that the Kremlin could and did control every communist party on the planet, just as it could control every Soviet citizen.
“The same compulsion which demands total power over all men within the Soviet state without a single exception,” according to NSC-68, “demands total power over all Communist parties and all states under Soviet Union. Thus Stalin has said that the theory and tactics of Leninism as expounded by the Bolshevik party are mandatory for the proletarian parties of all countries.”
That the united world communism movement was under Soviet direction was disproved by the poor relationship between Mao and Stalin, by the suspicion of the Vietnamese communists that their Chinese allies were trying to grab some of their border provinces, and by the claims of the Spanish communists in the 1970s and 1980s that Moscow did not control them. The Soviets regarded this idea, called Euro-communism and outlined in Santiago Carrillo’s 1977 book Euro-communism and the State, as Marxist heresy.
Owing to the supposed communist worldwide unity, the authors of NSC-68 believed the post–World War II defense budget must expand as never before in peacetime. The United States, under NSC-68, must be ready to fight several wars at the same time. But what about the cost?
Secretary of State Dean Acheson told Paul Nitze, NSC-68’s primary author, not to put a price tag on the document. Worse than that, critics said, were the future obligations to spend and intervene that the document implied.
Said presidential aide Charles Murphy of NSC-68, “What I read scared me so much that the next day I didn’t go to the office at all. It seems to me to establish an altogether convincing case that we had to spend more on defense.”
But again, the principles of this remarkable document were wrong. The idea that the post– World War II Soviet Union was led by a paranoid murdering Georgian called Joseph Stalin was certainly true, as documented by the remarkable work of the scholar Robert Conquest, the Gibbon of the Soviet empire. However, the idea that Stalin was ready to start World War III with the West as a way to achieve world communism is silly. The supposed attempt at world domination broke down on several counts.
First, Stalin traditionally had been wary of full-scale wars conducted against Western countries. The Soviets’ winter war of 1940 against the courageous Finns had taught him a painful lesson, a lesson he applied in Korea when he let Korean communists bleed but never seriously considered committing Soviet armed forces.
For decades he had argued for “socialism in one country.” In the 1920s, he clashed with his party rival, Leon Trotsky, who called for world revolution and was later killed by Stalin’s agents in Mexico. In the 1930s and 1940s, Stalin pursued détente with the democracies because of his fear of Nazi Germany.
“No Soviet leader has endorsed détente out of trust in Moscow’s adversaries. All have acted out a deep sense of distrust. And yet, Stalin, the most distrustful of all, actually hewed to postwar détente longer than the United States did.” wrote William Taubman in Stalin’s American Policy.
Second, in 1945, the Soviet Union, like the United Kingdom, was a Pyrrhic victor. The United Kingdom, after decades of empire, was virtually bankrupt. It had to look to Washington to bail it out with a loan. That was something the Soviets desperately wanted but never received.
The Soviet Union was in the same condition: it was an impoverished victor. Indeed, British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery had toured the USSR in late 1946 and reported that the “devastation in Russia is appalling and the country is in no fit state to go to war.”
Third, Stalin was frightened of the United States as a potential opponent. America had a monopoly on the A-bomb just after World War II for some four years. And unlike the case with the Soviet Union, American industrial plants had not been bombed during the war.
Stalin wanted no conventional wars with America, according to Milovan Djilas, a Yugoslavian communist leader. He had several talks with the Soviets after World War II and detailed Stalin’s fears in his book Conversations with Stalin. He said that it was Stalin who insisted that the Yugoslavs end their meddling in the Greek Civil War and stop trying to take Trieste from the Italians.
Still, the Soviet Union certainly looked for easy opportunities to dominate neighboring nations such as Poland or Czechoslovakia. But there was nothing remarkable about that. So had tsarist Russian regimes, noted Kennan.
Henry Wallace, fired as Commerce secretary for his opposition to containment, pushed for increased trade as a way to cool tensions between the superpowers. He also said the United States had no right to lecture the Soviets on Eastern Europe, just as the Soviets had no right to lecture the United States on Latin America, according to The Rise and Fall of the People’s Century: Henry A. Wallace and American Liberalism, 1941–1948, by Norman D. Markowitz.
Kennan also believed that the Soviet threat was limited and regional. The idea that it sought war with United States, the strongest nation economically and militarily to emerge from World War II, was dubious. Still, both Democrats and Republicans, even if many of them didn’t know of NSC-68, accepted its ideas.
That was, in part, because the year before the writing of NSC-68, the United States had reversed a tradition of a century and a half by joining a permanent military alliance.
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 edition of Freedom Daily.