Which was the most effective analysis of the early cold war period, NSC-68 or NSC-162/2

Essay, 2005

8 Pages, Grade: 72%


In the period after the end of World War II, America struggled to find a sustainable, coherent strategy to address the Soviet threat. It is without doubt that both NSC-68 and NSC-162/2 were important documents of their time. It is the aim of this essay to examine the circumstances of their creation, their differences and ultimately, assess which was a more coherent and effective analysis of the early Cold War Period, placing particular emphasis on the perception of international order in the papers.

NSC 68 was produced in 1949 by a study group from the Departments of State and Defense under the leadership of Paul Nietze. Its primary concern were the implications of the Soviet possession of the atomic bomb, the uncovering of the spy ring around Fuchs that had infiltrated the Manhattan Project, the recent creation of the German Democratic Republic and the fall of China to Communism. The paper rested on the premise that the decisive struggle in foreign affairs was between the United States and Soviet Russia, and that there could only be one winner.

One of the main arguments put forward was that the totalitarian nature of Soviet Russia allowed nothing but an expansionist foreign policy, “driven to follow this policy because it cannot (…) tolerate the existence of free societies.”[1] According to the paper, the Soviets were motivated by “a new, fanatic faith, antithetical to our own”, seeking to “impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.”[2] Wolfe makes the point in The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Threat that NSC 68 denied that the Russians were capable of acting like other great powers, unable to strike a balance between maximizing their power in some places and minimizing their losses in others, instead expanding everywhere driven by their internal character.[3] The policy of NSC 68 was, in its own terms, a “policy of calculated and gradual coercion” in order to “check and roll back the Kremlin’s drive for world domination” by building up “clearly superior power in its most inclusive sense.”[4]

The paper envisaged tripling the defense budget in order to build up the conventional forces, thereby reducing reliance on nuclear weapons. Left unsigned on Truman’s desk for six month, it was not until the Korean War broke out that the assessment of NSC 68 was judged to be correct, and the strategy proposed in the paper adopted. It is reasonable to assume that, had war not intervened, military spending would not have increased anywhere near the level envisaged in the paper because of the impressive number and position of people who opposed increased expenditure on armaments or simply did not deem it necessary.[5]

Nitze himself acknowledged later that the nature of the Soviet threat should have been analyzed in greater detail[6], calling it a mistake to focus so exclusively on Western Europe and the Far East. Of the estimated 175 Soviet divisions that the group used when compiling the paper, it turned out later that only one third were actually full strength, one third partial and one third cadres. Nitze excuses this with the group’s dependence on the intelligence community, stating that the three months it took to write NSC 68 were too short to make an independent estimate.[7] Alan Wolfe has criticized the numerous statements contained in the document that suggest the existence of a direct relationship between the authoritarian internal structure of a state and the desire to expand. He argues that some democratic states have been highly expansionist, whereas some authoritarian ones, like Fascist Spain under Franco, have concentrated on domestic issues. To Wolfe, a state’s activities in foreign policy depend much more on its power in the world than on its internal structure. He furthermore points out that the Soviet Union was a socially different system to a Totalitarian model of Nazi Germany in a different historical period.[8] Considering the fact that the whole of NSC 68 was based on that internal Russian character, there is ample reason to assume flaws in its argumentation.


[1] A. Wolfe, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Threat, (IPS, Amsterdam, 1981), p. 13

[2] The American Historical Review, Vol. 94, No. 4, (Oct. 1998), pp 963-989 H. W. Brands: The Age of Vulnerability: Eisenhower and the National Insecurity State, p. 967

[3] A. Wolfe, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Threat, (IPS, Amsterdam, 1981), p. 14

[4] FRUS, 1950, Vol. I, pp 253, 255, 284

[5] S. Wells, Jr. : Sounding the Tocsin: NSC 68 and the Soviet Threat

International Security, Vol. 4, No. 2. (Autumn, 1979), pp. 116-158.

[6] International Security, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Spring 1980), Gordon Adams, NSC 68 and the Soviet Threat reconsidered, p. 12

[7] ibid, p. 11

[8] A. Wolfe, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Threat, (IPS, Amsterdam, 1981), p. 14

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Which was the most effective analysis of the early cold war period, NSC-68 or NSC-162/2
Lancaster University
POL 320 American Foreign Policy
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Philipp Studt (Author), 2005, Which was the most effective analysis of the early cold war period, NSC-68 or NSC-162/2, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/53223


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