We are going to stay, period.
HARRY S TRUMAN
IN JULY 1947, WHEN GEORGE KENNAN’S INFLUENCE WITHIN THE GOVERNMENT was at its peak, he published an article in the journal Foreign Affairs entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” and signed only “By X.” Its author was soon widely known; its reception nothing short of spectacular. It quickly became the quasi-official statement of American foreign policy.
Kennan argued that the Soviets were motivated by two beliefs: (1) the innate antagonism between capitalism and socialism; and (2) the infallibility of the Kremlin. Their goal was world conquest, but because of the Soviet theory of the inevitability of the eventual fall of capitalism they were in no hurry and had no timetable. The Kremlin’s “political action is a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal. Its main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power.”
Kennan was an intellectual and he filled the X article with qualifications, although he would later lament that he had not qualified sufficiently and that therefore his article had been misread. He did not believe the Russians posed any serious military threat nor that they wanted war. The challenge Kennan saw was a political and economic one, which should be met on those grounds by “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment.”
The sentence in Mr. X’s article that was most frequently quoted, however, and the one that became the touchstone of American policy, declared that what was needed was “the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.” This implied that crisis would follow crisis around the world, as the Soviet-masterminded conspiracy used its agents to accelerate the flow of Communist power into “every nook and cranny.” It also implied that the threat was military, which made it the responsibility of the United States to meet and throw it back wherever it appeared. Containment meant building up the military strength of America and her allies, and a willingness to stand up to the Russians wherever they applied pressure.
The first test came in Berlin, where in June 1948 the Western powers indicated that they intended to go ahead with the formation of a West German government. Simultaneously, the American Joint Chiefs proposed a military alliance with the Brussels powers. They urged the establishment of a central military command for the new organization with an American supreme commander. At the time there were twelve ill-equipped and poorly trained divisions in all Western Europe. The Joint Chiefs wanted eighty-five divisions, which could be had only through extensive rearmament of Western Europe. Unspoken but implicitly understood by everyone involved in the discussions was the fact that the only way to get the required number of men in arms was to use German troops. Because of British, Benelux, and especially French fears, however, this could not be broached at once. The first step was to form a Western Union without Germany but at the same time continue efforts toward West German independence.
Even in the United States, acceptance of the program would not be easy. There were three major objections: the cost; the abandonment of America’s historic position of no entangling alliances; and doubts about the wisdom of rearming the Germans. Truman would need all the help he could get. Senator Vandenberg responded handsomely. In early June 1948, he introduced a resolution in the Senate that encouraged “the progressive development of regional and other collective arrangements” for defense and promised to promote the “association of the United States” with such organizations. Vandenberg explicitly repudiated the idea that the United States should help the Europeans in building up a sizable force-in-being. On June 11, the Vandenberg Resolution passed the Senate by a vote of sixty-four to four.
At the beginning of the summer of 1948, the Soviets were thus faced with a series of what they considered threatening developments. The Marshall Plan was beginning to draw the Western European nations closer together. France, Britain, and the Benelux nations had signed a military pact that the United States had officially welcomed and had indicated it intended to join. Americans were already beginning to talk of bringing others into the proposed organization, among them Canada, Portugal, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Italy. Since these countries could contribute little to ground defense, the Soviets judged that the Americans wanted them included in order to use their territory for air and sea bases. Equally ominous was the Western determination to give independence to West Germany. In the long run this could only mean that the West intended to merge West Germany into the proposed anti-Soviet military alliance.
Adding to Stalin’s difficulties, Marshal Tito in Yugoslavia struck out on an independent course. Truman extended American economic aid to Tito, thus widening the split in the supposedly monolithic Communist bloc. Stalin tried to topple Tito, failed, and in despair expelled Yugoslavia from the Cominform. The example Tito had set, however, could not be so easily dismissed.
Soviet foreign policy, based on an occupied and divided Germany, a weakened Western Europe, and tight control of East Europe, faced total collapse. Whether Stalin had expansive plans is unclear and at least doubtful, but what had happened threatened the security of the Soviet Union itself. The victor in the war was being hemmed in by the West, with the vanquished playing a key role in the new coalition. Worst of all was the Western listening post and outpost in the heart of the Soviet security belt, the Western sector in Berlin.
Stalin responded to these challenges by arguing that since the West had abandoned the idea of German reunification, there was no longer any point to maintaining Berlin as the future capital of all Germany. The Western powers, through the logic of their own acts, ought to retire to their own zones. The Russians clamped down a total blockade on all ground and water traffic to Berlin. The British joined the Americans in a counterblockade on the movement of goods from the east into western Germany.
In the West there was sentiment to abandon Berlin. For many, it seemed foolish to risk World War III for the sake of the ex-Nazis, especially since there was some force to Stalin’s argument that if the West was going to create a West Germany nation it had no business staying in eastern Germany. Clay and Truman quickly scotched such talk. As Clay told the War Department, “We have lost Czechoslovakia. Norway is threatened. We retreat from Berlin. When Berlin falls, western Germany will be next.” Then all Europe would go Communist. The Americans felt they could not give an inch. Marshall declared, “We had the alternative of following a firm policy in Berlin or accepting the consequences of failure of the rest of our European policy,” a statement that described equally well Stalin’s feelings. Truman provided the last word in a succinct, simple declaration: “We are going to stay, period.”
Clay wanted to shoot his way through the Russian blockade. He thought the United States might just as well find out immediately whether the Russians wanted war or not. Given the ten-to-one disparity of ground strength in Europe, Army Chief of Staff Omar Bradley was able to convince Truman that there must be a better way. It was found with air transport, which soon began flying round-the-clock missions into Berlin, supplying up to 13,000 tons of goods per day. In an amazing performance, American fliers undertook to supply a great city completely from the air, and somehow managed to do it. The Berlin airlift caught the imagination of the world.
The war scare continued. On July 15 the National Security Council decided to send two groups of B-29s to Britain; B-29s were known around the world as the bombers that carried atomic weapons. In his diary Forrestal noted the rationale: (1) it would show the American public “how seriously the government ... views the current sequence of events”; (2) it would give the air force experience and “would accustom the British” to the presence of the U.S. Air Force; and (3) “we have the opportunity now of sending these planes, and once sent they would become somewhat of an accepted fixture,” whereas if America waited, the British might change their minds about the wisdom of having American bombers carrying atomic bombs on their soil.
The principle of American forward air bases in Europe had been established; it was obvious that if they were to be effective they would have to be scattered and that there would have to be more of them. Meanwhile, the need for a closer military connection with Western Europe had been emphasized. The draft was reintroduced and the army began to build up. To Kennan’s great discomfort, the economic orientation of the Marshall Plan had been nearly forgotten, as containment took on a military look.
There was one part of the world in which the United States and the Soviet Union were operating in cooperation, not confrontation. It was the Middle East. There, the superpowers made the Arabs pay a part of the price for the German death camps. Like so many of the problems of the modern world, Hitler created this one. Zionism, a movement born in Russia, advocated that Jews return to their homeland in Palestine after two thousand years of wandering, in order to establish their own nation. Zionism became a driving force among world Jewry only in response to the Nazi Final Solution. Most of those European Jews who survived the Holocaust had no desire to return to the old country; they wanted to go to Palestine, where a sizable Jewish population had already been built up in the first forty years of the century. Britain had a mandate to govern Palestine. Anxious to placate the Arabs, because of their large oil interests, the British tried to prevent further Jewish immigration into Palestine, while the Jews tried to drive the British out through terroristic tactics, of which the blowing up of a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (a feat engineered by Menachem Begin, later to become Israeli Prime Minister) was the most famous. Exhausted, the British turned the problem over to the United Nations, where the Soviets and Americans banded together to force a solution on the Arabs. That solution was the partition of Palestine to create a Jewish state along the Mediterranean coast, with almost indefensible borders. On May 14, 1948, Israel proclaimed its independence. The United States was the first country to recognize the new state, Russia a close second. Israel looked to Russia, not to the United States, for the arms she needed to defend herself.
The Arabs invaded, and in the first few weeks the Israelis retreated before the combined might of the Egyptian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Syrian, and Iraqi armies. The Israelis asked the United Nations for help, and once again the United States and the Soviet Union worked together to bring about a four-week truce. During this time, the Israelis procured quantities of heavy arms from Communist Czechoslovakia. When the shooting started again, it was the Israelis who drove their enemies from the field. The United States forced a cease-fire resolution through the United Nations, but it was generally ignored and Israel continued to conquer Arab territory, including western Galilee and parts of the Negev Desert. The Egyptians, their best army surrounded, sued for peace. In what would become a familiar role, American statesman Dr. Ralph Bunche stepped forward in January 1949 to arrange the disengagement of forces. After tortuous negotiations, Bunche arranged for armistice agreements among all the parties.
Israel was born, thanks in part to Russian military support and American negotiating skill. Her boundaries already exceeded those assigned her by the UN partition, and included thousands of unhappy Palestinian Arabs. There were, in addition, other Palestinians who had fled or who had been forced out by the fighting, thus beginning the problem of the Palestinian refugee. Another pattern in American relations with Israel began at this time, as President Truman put exceedingly strong pressure on Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion for concessions on both the refugee and boundary issues, only to meet with an indignantly negative response, backed by the veiled threat that the American Jewish community would turn against Truman if he persisted.
Truman, triumphant after his reelection (foreign policy had not been an issue between the major parties in the 1948 campaign), pledged in his Inaugural Address to aid those European nations willing to defend themselves. His Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, pushed forward a treaty with the Europeans. On April 4, 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington. Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Canada, and the United States pledged themselves to mutual assistance in case of aggression against any of the signatories.
The North American Treaty Organization (NATO) signified the beginning of a new era. In the nineteenth century, America had broken the bonds of a colonial, extractive economy and become a great industrial power, thanks in large part to private European loans. In the first forty-five years of the twentieth century, the United States had gradually achieved a position of equality with Europe. The Marshall Plan, followed by NATO, began in earnest an era of American military, political, and economic dominance over Europe.
In the spring of 1949, Truman enjoyed success after success. The creation of Israel and NATO was followed by a victory in Berlin, where on May 12 the Russians lifted the blockade. They had decided—as Clay had felt they would—that the counterblockade was hurting them more than they were injuring the West, and they realized there was no longer any hope of stopping the movement toward a West German government (the Bonn Republic came into being on May 23, 1949).
It had been a good spring for the President, but trouble lay ahead. The end of the war scare, combined with the fear that NATO was going to cost a good deal of money, began to put an end to bipartisanship in foreign policy. The old issues, buried since Truman’s dramatic speech on Greece, reemerged. Should the United States be a world policeman? How much should it pay to play such a role? And, at bottom, what was the nature and extent of the Soviet threat and how should it be met? Thoughtful Republicans, led by Senator Taft, began to question the wisdom of provoking the Soviets thousands of miles from America’s shores. In the committee meetings to consider ratification of the NATO Treaty, Congressmen began to ask embarrassing questions about the purpose of NATO.
Senator Henry Cabot Lodge wanted to know if NATO was the beginning of a series of regional organizations designed to hem in the Russians. Acheson reassured him by stressing that no one in the administration contemplated following NATO with “a Mediterranean pact, and then a Pacific pact, and so forth.” Other Senators wondered why the United States did not rely upon the United Nations. One reason was the Russian veto; another was that the Europeans required some sort of special guarantee. Acheson explained that “unity in Europe requires the continuing association and support of the United States. Without it free Europe would split apart.”
All these arguments had appeal, but serious questions remained. Could not as much be accomplished through the Marshall Plan? Why permanently split Europe, thereby abandoning any hope of freeing East Europe in the immediate future? What was the substance of the military guarantees that Americans were making or supporting?
The last question was crucial. The West already had adequate power with the atomic bomb. NATO, as it stood, added nothing to this power. The ground figures remained the same, with the Russians enjoying a ten-to-one advantage. Did the Secretary of State plan to send “substantial” numbers of American troops to Europe? Acheson responded, “The answer to that question, Senator, is a clear and absolute ‘No.’” Did he plan to put Germans back in uniform? “We are very clear,” Acheson replied, “that the disarmament and demilitarization of Germany must be complete and absolute.”
This deepened the mystery rather than clarifying it. What would NATO do? The problem, as French Premier Henri Queuille put it in a much-quoted statement, was easily described: “We know that once Western Europe was occupied, America would again come to our aid and eventually we would again be liberated. But the process would be terrible. The next time you probably would be liberating a corpse.” The solution was not so easily seen. In the absence of an imminent attack, neither the Europeans nor the Americans were remotely prepared to undertake the rearmament effort on the required scale to match the Red Army. The Europeans were unwilling to jeopardize their economic revival by building new standing armies.
Each side was trying to carry water on both shoulders. In order to persuade their peoples of the necessity of accepting a provocative alliance, the NATO governments had to insist that the alliance could defend them from invasion. But the governments also had to simultaneously insist that no intolerable sacrifices would be required. As Robert Osgood noted, “These two assurances could only be fulfilled, if at all, by the participation of West Germany in the alliance, but for political reasons this measure was no more acceptable to the European countries than a massive rearmament effort.”
The Truman administration continued to insist that it had no intention of encouraging a German buildup. Nor, the Senators were assured, would NATO lead to an arms race or require the Americans to provide military material to the Europeans. Taft was still opposed to the treaty but was persuaded to vote for it after the Senate specifically repudiated any obligation either to build up the armed forces of the eleven allies or to extend to them continued economic aid for the twenty-year period covered by the treaty. The Senate then ratified the NATO pact by a vote of eighty-four to twelve.
On July 23, 1949, Truman signed the North Atlantic Treaty. It marked the high point of bipartisanship and of containment in Europe. It also completed one phase of the revolution in American foreign policy. For the first time America had entered an entangling alliance in peacetime. American security thereafter could be immediately and drastically affected by changes in the overseas balance of power over which the United States could not exercise much effective control. It meant that the United States was guaranteeing the maintenance of foreign social structures and governments for the next twenty years. It committed the United States to close peacetime military collaboration with the armed services of foreign nations. It signified the extent both of America’s break with her past and of her determination to halt Communist expansion.
The presence of Italy (and later Greece and Turkey) among the members of the alliance made a misnomer of the words “North Atlantic” in the title; Portugal’s presence weakened the assertion that it was an alliance in defense of democracy. Even weaker was the claim that NATO represented a pact between equals, for the United States had no intention of sharing the control of its atomic weapons with its NATO partners, and the bomb was the only weapon that gave NATO’s military posture validity. Acheson’s denials to the contrary notwithstanding, the treaty paved the way for German rearmament. It also underscored the European orientation of Truman’s foreign policy, an orientation for which he would soon have to pay a price.
First, however, it was the Senate’s turn to pay. On the very day that the President signed the NATO Treaty, he presented the bill to Congress. All the assurances that the treaty would not inaugurate an arms race or cost the United States anything were brushed aside. Truman sent to Congress a Mutual Defense Assistance Bill asking for $1.5 billion for European military aid. The President described the object in modest terms: “The military assistance which we propose for these countries will be limited to that which is necessary to help them create mobile defensive forces”; in other words, to equip and bring up to strength Europe’s twelve or so divisions.
There was immediate opposition. Such a limited program would hardly give a “tangible assurance” to the peoples of Western Europe that they would be protected from the Red Army. The Military Assistance Program of 1949 was, obviously, only a small down payment on a large long-term investment. Senator Taft and other skeptics said this would never do, for the military assistance would be large enough only to provoke the Russians and precipitate an arms race without being adequate to halt the Red Army. Taft charged that the administration was committing the United States to a futile, obsolete, and bankrupt strategy of defending Europe by large-scale land warfare. He much preferred a unilateral American defense of Europe through building up the American air force and stepping up the production of atomic bombs.
This got to the heart of the matter, for in point of fact the meaning of NATO was that the United States promised to use the bomb to deter a Russian attack. The only alternative was to build up Western ground strength to match the Red Army, a politically impossible task.
The United States’s promise to use the bomb to deter Russian aggression made sense only if the Americans had bases in Europe from which to deliver the bombs and if the Americans retained their nuclear monopoly. The great need was bases for American bombers, which was the first and most important accomplishment of NATO. This, however, could have been accomplished through bilateral agreements and did not require a multinational treaty; it also did not require military aid to the NATO countries. Opposition to Truman’s Military Assistance Program continued.
Then, on September 22, 1949, the President announced that the Soviets had exploded an atomic bomb. “This is now a different world,” Vandenberg painfully recorded. It was indeed. The urge to do something, anything, was irrepressible. Six days later Congress sent the NATO appropriations to the President for his approval. Truman ordered the development of the hydrogen bomb accelerated. Nothing, however, could change the fact that America’s promise to defend Europe with the bomb had been dissipated almost before it had been given. If the Russians could make the bomb, they surely could develop the means to deliver it, first to Western European targets and then to the United States itself. The Soviets now had two trumps, the bomb and the Red Army, to the West’s one.
German remilitarization and Western Europe rearmament was the obvious way to counter the Red Army threat. The Americans could pay the bill, in an updated version of lend-lease. But the Europeans were suspicious, and France especially so. Europeans could see little point in accepting American arms if it also meant accepting American orders, the central problem in NATO both then and later. A strategy that used American equipment and European lives to counter the Red Army had little appeal to the Europeans, especially since only the Americans could decide when or where to use the troops, only the Americans could pull the nuclear trigger, and the battlefield where Russia and America would fight it out was Europe.
If the Europeans would not rearm, the Americans would have to do so themselves. Here the problem, as Samuel Huntington stated it, was “Could a democracy arm to deter or could it only arm to respond?” An election year was coming up. The House was changing Truman’s tax-revision bill into a tax-reduction bill. The Soviet threat was largely theoretical—the Red Army had not marched beyond the position it held in May of 1945, not even into Czechoslovakia. How much support, if any beyond what they were already paying, would the American people give to a policy of deterrence designed to forestall a threat that could only with difficulty be seen to endanger American security? Billions of dollars would be needed. Even if the taxpayers agreed to pay the bill, could the economy afford it? These were serious questions, but so were the ones on the other side. Could America afford not to rearm? Would not the failure to do so automatically abandon Western Europe to the Communists? It seemed to many in the government that it would.
In Asia the problem had reached crisis proportions. Mao’s troops were on the verge of driving Chiang off the mainland. American support for Chiang had been limited and halting, partly because of the Europe-first orientation of the Truman administration, mainly because of the budget ceilings within which Congress forced the government to operate. Millions of Americans believed that more aid would have saved Chiang. A great nation had been “lost” to Communism because Congress was stingy.
This widespread attitude underscored one of the basic assumptions of American foreign policy during the Cold War. Americans high and low implicitly assumed that with good policies and enough will, the United States could control events anywhere. If things did go wrong, if Poland or China did fall to the enemy, it could only have happened because of mistakes, not because there were areas of the world in which what America did or wanted made little difference. The assumption that in the end every situation was controllable and could be made to come out as the United States wished—what Senator William Fulbright later called “the arrogance of power”—colored almost all foreign-policy decisions in the early Cold War. It also prepared the way for the right-wing charge that the Truman administration was shot through with traitors, for there could be no other explanation for American failures.
The roots of the assumption were deep and complex. The American belief that the United States was different from and better than other countries was part of it. American success in 1917-18 and 1941-45 contributed to the conceit that the United States could order the world. So did the feeling of power that came with a monopoly of the atomic bomb, American productivity, and the American military position at the conclusion of World War II. There were racial connotations to the idea. Although most Americans were too sophisticated to talk about the “white man’s burden” and the “little brown brothers,” they still believed in white superiority.
Given all the power America had at her disposal, given American goodwill, and given the eagerness of peoples everywhere to follow the American example, how had it happened that East Europe and China fell to the Communists? The junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, had one answer. On February 9, 1950, in a speech at Wheeling, West Virginia, he declared, “I have in my hand 57 cases of individuals [in the State Department] who would appear to be either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist Party, but who nevertheless are helping to shape our foreign policy.” A few days later the figure had gone up to 205 Communists in the department; at another time the figure was 81. The charge, however, was consistent—America had been betrayed.
McCarthy’s charges came less than eight weeks after Chiang fled to Formosa, five days before the Soviet Union and Communist China signed a thirty-year mutual-aid treaty, and three weeks before Klaus Fuchs was found guilty of giving atomic secrets to agents of the Soviet Union. The last was, perhaps, the most important cause of the spectacular popularity of McCarthy and of the forces he represented, for it seemed to be the only explanation of how the backward Russians matched America’s achievements in atomic development so quickly. McCarthyism swept the country. The Republicans suddenly had an issue that could bring them, after twenty years (“twenty years of treason,” according to McCarthy), back to power.
McCarthy never had a majority of the public behind him, but he nevertheless enjoyed broad support, and the threat he represented was real. The Federal government, to fight back, strengthened and extended its loyalty investigations. At times it seemed that everyone in America was checking on everyone else for possible Communist leanings. Millions of Americans agreed with McCarthy’s basic premise—America had failed in the Cold War not because of inherent limitations on her power, nor be cause of her refusal to rearm, but because of internal treason. Even those public figures who did speak out against McCarthy—and their numbers were few—objected to his methods, not his assumptions. The opponents also wanted to ferret out the guilty, but they insisted that the rights of the innocent should be protected.
There was an Alice in Wonderland quality to the entire uproar. Truman administration officials, up to and including Acheson, had to defend themselves from charges that began with their being soft on Communism and escalated to treason. The Democrats were bewildered and angry. With some justice, they wondered what more they could have done to stand up to the Russians, especially in view of the funds available, funds drastically limited by the very Republicans who now demanded blood for the State Department’s shortcomings. Chickens had come home to roost. From the time Truman had “scared hell out of the American people” in March of 1947 to the explosion of the Russian bomb and the loss of China in 1949, Democratic officials in the State Department had been stressing the worldwide threat of Communism along with the danger of internal subversion in foreign governments. McCarthy and his adherents followed the same path, only they went farther along it.
There was in McCarthyism an appeal to the inland prejudice against the eastern-seaboard establishment and the things it stood for in the popular mind—the New Deal, among others. Anti-intellectualism was always prominent in the movement. McCarthy drew strong support from those Asia-firsters who had been opposed to the trend of American foreign policy, with its European orientation, at least since the early days of World War II. Americans of East European origin were among the first to flock to McCarthy’s standard; much of the Catholic Church in America came with them. Above all, McCarthy provided a simple answer to those who were frustrated as America seemed to suffer defeat after defeat in the Cold War.
One of the appeals of the McCarthy explanation of the world situation was that it would not cost much to set things right. All that was required was to eliminate the Communists in the State Department. Few of McCarthy’s supporters, and none of those like Senator Taft who tolerated him, were ready to go to war with Russia to liberate the satellites or to send millions of American troops to China to restore Chiang. They did want to root out those who had sold out America at Yalta, Potsdam, and in China; then, with honest patriots in the State Department, world events would develop in accordance with American wishes.
The administration could not accept such a limited program for the Cold War, but it too wanted the same results. It was difficult, however, to develop a comprehensive program in this atmosphere of fear, even hysteria. Nevertheless, something had to be done. China had been lost. Russia did have the bomb. The Europeans were not willing to assume the burden of rearmament. The McCarthy assault was there. The United States had practically no usable ground power. And the President, primarily for domestic political purposes, was still trying to cut the budget. His new Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, had set out to “cut the fat” from the Defense Department. He began by canceling the Navy’s supercarrier. Truman set a limit of $13 billion for defense in the upcoming budget, by no stretch of the imagination enough to support a get-tough-with-the-Russians stance. American foreign policy had arrived at a crossroads.
On January 30, 1950, President Truman had authorized the State and Defense departments “to make an over all review and re-assessment of American foreign and defense policy in the light of the loss of China, the Soviet mastery of atomic energy and the prospect of the fusion bomb.” Through February, March, and early April, as events whirled around it, a State-Defense committee met. By April 12 it had a report ready, which Truman sent to the National Security Council. It came back as an NSC policy paper, number 68; it was, as Walter LeFeber says, “one of the key historical documents of the Cold War.” NSC 68, Senator Henry Jackson declared, was “the first comprehensive statement of a national strategy.”
As one of the principal authors stated, NSC 68 advocated “an immediate and large-scale build-up in our military and general strength and that of our allies with the intention of righting the power balance and in the hope that through means other than all-out war we could induce a change in the nature of the Soviet system.” How the change was to be brought about was unclear, except that it would not be through war. NSC 68 postulated that while the West waited for the Soviets to mellow, the United States should rearm and thereby prevent any Russian expansion. The program did not look to the liberation of China or of Eastern Europe, but it did call on the United States to assume unilaterally the defense of the non-Communist world.
NSC 68 represented the practical extension of the Truman Doctrine, which had been worldwide in its implications but limited to Europe in its application. The document provided the justification for America’s assuming the role of world policeman and came close to saying that all change was directed by the Communists and should therefore be resisted. NSC 68 also assumed that if America were willing to try, it could stop change. This was satisfying to the McCarthyites, but the willingness to abandon East Europe, China, and Russia to Communism was not. The McCarthyites, however, had no very clear idea on how to liberate the enslaved peoples either.
NSC 68 was realistic in assessing what it would cost America to become the world policeman. State Department officials estimated that defense expenditures of $35 billion a year would be required to implement the program of rearming America and NATO. Eventually, more could be spent, for NSC 68 declared that the United States was so rich it could use 20 percent of its gross national product for arms without suffering national bankruptcy. In 1950 this would have been $50 billion.
That was a great deal of money, even for Americans. It was necessary, however, because the danger was so great. The document foresaw “an indefinite period of tension and danger” and warned that by 1954 the Soviet Union would have the nuclear capability to destroy the United States. America had to undertake “a bold and massive program” of rebuilding the West until it far surpassed the Soviet bloc; only thus could it stand at the “political and material center with other free nations in variable orbits around it.” The United States could no longer ask, “How much security can we afford?” nor could it attempt to “distinguish between national and global security.”
Truman recognized, as he later wrote, that NSC 68 “meant a great military effort in time of peace. It meant doubling or tripling the budget, increasing taxes heavily, and imposing various kinds of economic controls. It meant a great change in our normal peacetime way of doing things.” He refused to allow publication of NSC 68 and indicated that he would do nothing about revising the budget until after the congressional elections. He realized that without a major crisis there was little chance of selling the program to Congress or the public. He himself had only two and a half years to serve, while NSC 68 contemplated a long-term program. If the Republicans entered the White House, the chances were that their main concern would be to lower the budget, in which case the nation would have to wait for the return of the Democrats to really get NSC 68 rolling. Thus, when Truman received NSC 68 in its final form in early June 1950, he made no commitment. What he would have done with it had not other events intruded is problematical.
While Truman was studying the paper, he may have noted a sentence that declared it should be American policy to meet “each fresh challenge promptly and unequivocally.” If so, he was about to have an opportunity to put it into practice. The crisis that would allow him to implement NSC 68 was at hand.