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A Strategy of Containment: National Security Council Paper NSC 68

Paul Nitze (Photo in Truman Library collection)

Paul Nitze (Photo in Truman Library collection)

Crafted under the leadership of Paul Nitze (head of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department) and delivered to President Truman on April 7, 1950, NSC 68 was an attempt to lay out a comprehensive approach to dealing with the Soviet Union. It was initiated by Truman’s concern about the development of thermonuclear weapons (exponentially more powerful than the fission bombs exploded over Japan at the end of World War II). Truman asked for a review of American security policy in light of this new weapon.

Nitze’s team took a broad view of the problem, titling the report “United States Objectives and Programs for National Security.” First, they analyzed the core ideas of American and Soviet society and underscored the inevitability of conflict:

The Kremlin regards the United States as the only major threat to the conflict between idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin, which has come to a crisis with the polarization of power . . .  and the exclusive possession of atomic weapons by the two protagonists. The idea of freedom, moreover, is peculiarly and intolerably subversive of the idea of slavery. But the converse is not true. The implacable purpose of the slave state to eliminate the challenge of freedom has placed the two great powers at opposite poles. It is this fact which gives the present polarization of power the quality of crisis.

Recognizing that confronting the Soviet Union would require a long-term struggle, Nitze’s team discussed not only traditional foreign policy and defense issues, but also domestic issues, especially the American economy as the necessary foundation for this long-term struggle. The paper would come to be viewed as an important statement of the strategy of containment.

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