NSC-68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security eText - Primary Source

Primary Source

Paul Nitze served as the U.S. Department of State's Chief Policy Planner in the early 1950s. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Paul Nitze served as the U.S. Department of State's Chief Policy Planner in the early 1950s. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.


By: Paul H. Nitze

Date: April 14, 1950

Source: Nitze, Paul H. NSC-68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security. April 14, 1950. Available online at ; website home page: http://www.fas.org (accessed June 18, 2003).

About the Author: Paul H. Nitze (1907–) authored one of the most influential policies of the Cold War: National Security Council Document 68 (NSC 68). Graduating from Harvard University in 1927, Nitze worked in a number of federal government positions during and after World War II (1939–1945). Since the end of the Cold War, Nitze has strengthened his views toward nonproliferation and now concludes that nuclear weapons are no longer necessary in world affairs.


The end of World War II brought only a temporary sense of safety for the American public. With the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the United States ended the war and began a new conflict with the Soviet Union. The Cold War emerged from the devastation of World War II as the wartime allies competed to fill the void left by Germany in Europe and Japan in East Asia. Over the next five years, policy makers, the press, and many common citizens declared that a new menace threatened global security even more than the rise of fascism in the 1930s. The battle between communism and capitalism would impact every corner of the globe for much of the next half century.

Communism, supposedly directed by the Soviet Union, challenged U.S. hegemony in Europe and Asia. President Harry Truman (served 1945–1953) directed policies that provided enormous amounts of economic aid, and a significant U.S. military presence, to nations still reeling from the devastation wrought during the previous decade. The Truman doctrine (1947) distilled these new policies into a single ideology under which the United States must intervene in other countries to prevent the establishment of communist regimes. If the United States did not act immediately and strongly, the communist menace would soon spread from nation to nation, eventually isolating and likely invading the United States in a final push for Soviet world domination. The specific guidelines concerning why, when, and how the United States should develop its military force for possible engagement with the Soviet Union waited to be determined. Also in 1947, Truman expanded the federal government's anticommunist infrastructure with the National Security Act. This policy created the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council. As their names reflected, these agencies' primary purpose concerned protecting the United States against the communist threat.


Written in 1950, NSC 68 presented the Truman administration with a comprehensive strategy for confronting the Soviet Union and winning the Cold War. The document begins with a detailed analysis of the origins of the Cold War and presents a clear, forceful rationalization of global anticommunist action. NSC 68 portrays the United States as a protector of the free world, while the Soviet Union, bent on total domination, was the opposite. Lest anyone conclude that the Soviet Union did not in fact represent the most significant threat to the United States in its history, the NSC 68 emphasizes that "the cold war is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake."

Following this conclusion, NSC 68 urges a massive increase in U.S. military spending and economic aid to nations menaced by communism. Contrary to the isolationist policies of the 1930s, which many had concluded led to the rise of Germany and Japan, the United States must intervene throughout the world with displays of strength, unity, and dedication to protect its own national security. Yet, NSC 68 does not call for direct, armed assaults on the Soviet Union. The communist nation already possessed sufficient weaponry to defend itself and subject the United States to heavy losses. Rather, this policy paper calls for the containment and isolation of global communism.

Despite the immediate action urged by NSC 68, many believed that the American public would not support billions of dollars to be spent in a war in which the United States had not been directly attacked. As Senator Arthur Vandenburg emphasized, the Truman administration would need to "scare the hell out of the American people" to get them to support massive military and foreign policy expenditures in the midst of a domestic economic recession. Just such an event occurred on June 25, 1950, when communist North Korean forces invaded South Korea, beginning the Korean War (1950–1953). Thereafter, many skeptics of NSC 68 reversed their opinion in the context of a communist takeover of South Korea and supported U.S. involvement in the war.

Primary Source: NSC-68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: NSC 68 may be viewed as a document with specific foreign and domestic goals, as the Truman administration attempted to strengthen itself on the domestic front as it attempted to do the same internationally. The Korean War would soon call for many of the following recommendations, cementing NSC 68's stature as one of the most significant policy statements of the Cold War.

"Conclusions and Recommendations"


The foregoing analysis indicates that the probable fission bomb capability and possible thermonuclear bomb capability of the Soviet Union have greatly intensified the Soviet threat to the security of the United States. This threat is of the same character as that described in NSC 20/4 (approved by the President on November 24, 1948) but is more immediate than had previously been estimated. In particular, the United States now faces the contingency that within the next four or five years the Soviet Union will possess the military capability of delivering a surprise atomic attack of such weight that the United States must have substantially increased general air, ground, and sea strength, atomic capabilities, and air and civilian defenses to deter war and to provide reasonable assurance, in the event of war, that it could survive the initial blow and go on to the eventual attainment of its objectives. In return, this contingency requires the intensification of our efforts in the fields of intelligence and research and development.

Allowing for the immediacy of the danger, the following statement of Soviet threats, contained in NSC 20/4, remains valid:

  • The gravest threat to the security of the United States within the foreseeable future stems from the hostile designs and formidable power of the USSR, and from the nature of the Soviet system.
  • The political, economic, and psychological warfare which the USSR is now waging has dangerous potentialities for weakening the relative world position of the United States and disrupting its traditional institutions by means short of war, unless sufficient resistance is encountered in the policies of this and other non-communist countries.
  • The risk of war with the USSR is sufficient to warrant, in common prudence, timely and adequate preparation by the United States.
  • Even though present estimates indicate that the Soviet leaders probably do not intend deliberate armed action involving the United States at this time, the possibility of such deliberate resort to war cannot be ruled out.
  • Now and for the foreseeable future there is a continuing danger that war will arise either through Soviet miscalculation of the determination of the United States to use all the means at its command to safeguard its security, through Soviet misinterpretation of our intentions, or through U.S. miscalculation of Soviet reactions to measures which we might take.
  • Soviet domination of the potential power of Eurasia, whether achieved by armed aggression or by political and subversive means, would be strategically and politically unacceptable to the United States.
  • The capability of the United States either in peace or in the event of war to cope with threats to its security or to gain its objectives would be severely weakened by internal development, important among which are:
  • Serious espionage, subversion and sabotage, particularly by concerted and well-directed communist activity.
  • Prolonged or exaggerated economic instability.
  • Internal political and social disunity.
  • Inadequate or excessive armament or foreign aid expenditures.
  • An excessive or wasteful usage of our resources in time of peace.
  • Lessening of U.S. prestige and influence through vacillation of appeasement or lack of skill and imagination in the conduct of its foreign policy or by shirking world responsibilities.
  • Development of a false sense of security through a deceptive change in Soviet tactics.

    Although such developments as those indicated in paragraph 18 above would severely weaken the capability of the United States and its allies to cope with the Soviet threat to their security, considerable progress has been made since 1948 in laying the foundation upon which adequate strength can now be rapidly built.

    The analysis also confirms that our objectives with respect to the Soviet Union, in time of peace as well as in time of war, as stated in NSC 20/4 (para. 19), are still valid, as are the aims and measures stated therein (paras. 20 and 21). Our current security programs and strategic plans are based upon these objectives, aims, and measures:19.

  • To reduce the power and influence of the USSR to limits which no longer constitute a threat to the peace, national independence, and stability of the world family of nations.
  • To bring about a basic change in the conduct of international relations by the government in power in Russia, to conform with the purposes and principles set forth in the UN Charter.

    In pursuing these objectives, due care must be taken to avoid permanently impairing our economy and the fundamental values and institutions inherent in our way of life.

  • We should endeavor to achieve our general objectives by methods short of war through the pursuit of the following aims:
  • To encourage and promote the gradual retraction of undue Russian power and influence from the present perimeter areas around traditional Russian boundaries and the emergence of the satellite countries as entities independent of the USSR.
  • To encourage the development among the Russian peoples of attitudes which may help to modify current Soviet behavior and permit a revival of the national life of groups evidencing the ability and determination to achieve and maintain national independence.
  • To eradicate the myth by which people remote from Soviet military influence are held in a position of subservience to Moscow and to cause the world at large to see and understand the true nature of the USSR and the Soviet-directed world communist party, and to adopt a logical and realistic attitude toward them.
  • To create situations which will compel the Soviet Government to recognize the practical undesirability of acting on the basis of its present concepts and the necessity of behaving in accordance with precepts of international conduct, as set forth in the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.
  • Attainment of these aims requires that the United States:
  • Develop a level of military readiness which can be maintained as long as necessary as a deterrent to Soviet aggression, as indispensable support to our political attitude toward the USSR, as a source of encouragement to nations resisting Soviet political aggression, and as an adequate basis for immediate military commitments and for rapid mobilization should war prove unavoidable.
  • Assure the internal security of the United States against dangers of sabotage, subversion, and espionage.
  • Maximize our economic potential, including the strengthening of our peacetime economy and the establishment of essential reserves readily available in the event of war.
  • Strengthen the orientation toward the United States of the non-Soviet nations; and help such of those nations as are able and willing to make an important contribution to U.S. security, to increase their economic and political stability and their military capability.
  • Place the maximum strain on the Soviet structure of power and particularly on the relationships between Moscow and the satellite countries.
  • Keep the U.S. public fully informed and cognizant of the threats to our national security so that it will be prepared to support the measures which we must accordingly adopt.

In the light of present and prospective Soviet atomic capabilities, the action which can be taken under present programs and plans, however, becomes dangerously inadequate, in both timing and scope, to accomplish the rapid progress toward the attainment of the United States political, economic, and military objectives which is now imperative.

A continuation of present trends would result in a serious decline in the strength of the free world relative to the Soviet Union and its satellites. This unfavorable trend arises from the inadequacy of current programs and plans rather than from any error in our objectives and aims. These trends lead in the direction of isolation, not by deliberate decision but by lack of the necessary basis for a vigorous initiative in the conflict with the Soviet Union.

Our position as the center of power in the free world places a heavy responsibility upon the United States for leadership. We must organize and enlist the energies and resources of the free world in a positive program for peace which will frustrate the Kremlin design for world domination by creating a situation in the free world to which the Kremlin will be compelled to adjust. Without such a cooperative effort, led by the United States, we will have to make gradual withdrawals under pressure until we discover one day that we have sacrificed positions of vital interest.

It is imperative that this trend be reversed by a much more rapid and concerted build-up of the actual strength of both the United States and the other nations of the free world. The analysis shows that this will be costly and will involve significant domestic, financial, and economic adjustments.

The execution of such a build-up, however, requires that the United States have an affirmative program beyond the solely defensive one of countering the threat posed by the Soviet Union. This program must light the path to peace and order among nations in a system based on freedom and justice, as contemplated in the Charter of the United Nations. Further, it must envisage the political and economic measures with which and the military shield behind which the free world can work to frustrate the Kremlin design by the strategy of the cold war; for every consideration of devotion to our fundamental values and to our national security demands that we achieve our objectives by the strategy of the cold war, building up our military strength in order that it may not have to be used. The only sure victory lies in the frustration of the Kremlin design by the steady development of the moral and material strength of the free world and its projection into the Soviet world in such a way as to bring about an internal change in the Soviet system. Such a positive program—harmonious with our fundamental national purpose and our objectives—is necessary if we are to regain and retain the initiative and to win and hold the necessary popular support and cooperation in the United States and the rest of the free world.

This program should include a plan for negotiation with the Soviet Union, developed and agreed with our allies and which is consonant with our objectives. The United States and its allies, particularly the United Kingdom and France, should always be ready to negotiate with the Soviet Union on terms consistent with our objectives. The present world situation, however, is one which militates against successful negotiations with the Kremlin—for the terms of agreements on important pending issues would reflect present realities and would therefore be unacceptable, if not disastrous, to the United States and the rest of the free world. After a decision and a start on building up the strength of the free world has been made, it might then be desirable for the United States to take an initiative in seeking negotiations in the hope that it might facilitate the process of accommodation by the Kremlin to the new situation. Failing that, the unwillingness of the Kremlin to accept equitable terms or its bad faith in observing them would assist in consolidating popular opinion in the free world in support of the measures necessary to sustain the build-up.

In summary, we must, by means of a rapid and sustained build-up of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world, and by means of an affirmative program intended to wrest the initiative from the Soviet Union, confront it with convincing evidence of the determination and ability of the free world to frustrate the Kremlin design of a world dominated by its will. Such evidence is the only means short of war which eventually may force the Kremlin to abandon its present course of action and to negotiate acceptable agreements on issues of major importance.

The whole success of the proposed program hangs ultimately on recognition by this Government, the American people, and all free peoples, that the cold war is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake. Essential prerequisites to success are consultations with Congressional leaders designed to make the program the object of non-partisan legislative support, and a presentation to the public of a full explanation of the facts and implications of the present international situation. The prosecution of the program will require of us all the ingenuity, sacrifice, and unity demanded by the vital importance of the issue and the tenacity to persevere until our national objectives have been attained.


That the President:

  1. Approve the foregoing Conclusions.
  2. Direct the National Security Council, under the continuing direction of the President, and with the participation of other Departments and Agencies as appropriate, to coordinate and insure the implementation of the Conclusions herein on an urgent and continuing basis for as long as necessary to achieve our objectives. For this purpose, representatives of the member Departments and Agencies, the Joint Chiefs of Staff or their deputies, and other Departments and Agencies as required should be constituted as a revised and strengthened staff organization under the National Security Council to develop coordinated programs for consideration by the National Security Council.

Further Resources


Hogan, Michael J. A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945-1954. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Kennan, George F. American Diplomacy, 1900–1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

May, Ernest R., ed. American Cold War Strategy: Interpreting NSC 68. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1993.

Talbott, Strobe. The Master at the Game: Paul Nitze and the Nuclear Peace. New York: Knopf, 1988.


"Nitze, Paul Henry." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Available online at http://www.bartleby.com/65/ni/Nitze-Pa.html; website home page: http://www.bartleby.com (accessed June 18, 2003).

"NSC 68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security." National Security Council, Intelligence Resource Program, Federation of American States. Available online at http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsc-hst/nsc-68.htm; website home page: http://www.fas.org/irp/ (accessed June 18, 2003).

"Paul Nitze." Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. Available online at ; website home page: http://www.sais-jhu.edu/ (accessed June 18, 2003).


The Cold War. Original release, 1998. CNN/Turner Home Video, 2002, VHS.