National Security Council Paper: NSC-68


NSC-68 — officially A Report to the National Security Council by the Executive Secretary on United States Objectives and Programs for National Security — is one of the defining documents of the Cold War.[1] It assessed, in 1950, the United States and Soviet Union’s ambitions and capabilities, and laid out the logic of what would become Washington’s strategic posture toward Moscow for the next four decades.

The paper had its origins in the perceived failure of the United States to effectively counter Soviet aggression in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union successfully detonated its first atomic bomb, ending the American monopoly on nuclear weapons. Two months later, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China confirmed that communism had metastasized to the most populous country in the world. As communist expansionism threatened Europe and Asia, U.S. policymakers lacked a coherent strategic vision: some believed in pursuing detente, others in containment or more confrontational strategies.

In response to these crises, President Harry Truman tasked a special committee to provide him with the way forward. It was this re-examination, led by Director of Policy Planning Staff Paul Nitze, that would become the top secret document NSC-68. Circulated on April 14, 1950, the document provided a strategic vision for addressing the Soviet threat. In the words of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, NSC-68 was meant “to so bludgeon the mass mind of ‘top government’ that not only could the president make a decision but that the decision could be carried out.”[2]

To do so, NSC-68 depicted a world split between two irreconcilable ideologies. It argued that the Soviets, driven by a creed antithetical to that of the free world, were determined to achieve world domination. In response, NSC-68 called for a buildup of the U.S. military and a global strategy of containment. It crystallized the worldview and strategy that would guide U.S. policy for the duration of the Cold War.

This Vision for Competitiveness is inspired by the purpose, clarity, and structure of NSC-68. The Special Competitive Studies Project shares a similar objective: to put forward a strategy for the United States and the free world in an era of rapid technological advances and existential geopolitical competition.

[1] A Report to the National Security Council by the Executive Secretary on United States Objectives and Programs for National Security, U.S. Department of State (1950).

[2] James M. Lindsay, TWE Remembers: NSC-68, Council on Foreign Relations (2012) (quoting Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department, W. W. Norton & Company at 374 (1969)).


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